Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 28 April, 2011

Helena Kaut-Howson’s version of Chekhov is bedevilled by contradictions. She claims a greater immediacy for it since she directs as well as adapting and does the latter as a Russian speaker rather than from someone else’s literal translation, yet she acknowledges that her lead actor Jon Strickland improved her text for “speakability”, which puts that extra layer of mediated interpretation back again. She decries the “fossilising reverence” of the “venerated English approach” to Chekhov, which normally results in under-paced, elegiac productions, yet her own staging excels in languor. This is an aspect of the central paradox of Chekhov production: the problem of portraying social and personal inertia in a sufficiently dramatic way. This is especially true of Uncle Vanya, which probably has the smallest amount of actual event of any of his major plays: a kiss and a gunshot (which misses, of course), and that’s about it to sustain us through, on this occasion, the better part of three hours.

To give all due credit, Kaut-Howson has realised her vision in detail. Sophie Jump’s design blends an all-purpose room of mismatched wooden chairs, old dresser and the inevitable samovar with a row of silver birches behind, so that a simple lighting and sound change can take characters out of doors or simply into an unspecified location. Strickland’s Vanya is a ridiculous man in the Dostoevskian sense, his sorrows and frustrations banal, his eventual Act Three explosion foredoomed to be inconsequential. Simon Gregor’s Astrov could only be taken for either a beauhunk or a heroic thinker in a milieu as starved of human interaction as this, since there is little to distinguish him from Vanya save for hair colour and a few inches in height. Hara Yannas makes herself so plain as young Sonya that one cannot blame Astrov for overlooking her, and Marianne Oldham as her stepmother Yelena is so much the urbanite at sea in the country that she can scarcely summon up the energy to be adored by both Vanya and Astrov. It all makes for a beautifully composed and delineated picture but, alas, an almost entirely still one as well.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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