“My life no longer has any shape to it”
It was perhaps a little bit of a surprise when the Print Room announced their latest show to be Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, the relatively new theatre having previously concentrated on lesser-known works by playwrights. But any doubts should be seriously allayed by this intimately atmospheric production which utilises a new version by Mike Poulton to lend a fresh dynamic to this tale of corrosive inaction.
Vanya has spent much of his life attending to the affairs of his former brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov, sequestered in a household of misfits in the Russian countryside. But when the professor turns up with his new much younger wife, Vanya is provoked into a period of gloomy self-reflexiveness as he faces up to how much of his life he has wasted. The new arrivals also cause havoc for other residents of the estate as ultimately everyone is forced to confront what might have been.
Lucy Bailey’s production is full of the aching longing and wasted potential that one is usually accustomed to with Chekhov, but she counterbalances this with an energy and humour that frequently sparkles off of Poulton’s version. So Iain Glen’s brilliant portrayal of Vanya encompasses the passion of the man he could have been as well the deep dissatisfaction of who he is. Paired up with William Houston’s equally excellent Astrov, their late night boozing and body-slamming sessions are a neat reminder that even depressed people are allowed the occasional night to enjoy themselves.
Houston’s craggily handsome Astrov exudes charisma, which has very much caught the eye of Vanya’s niece, the dutiful Sonya – Glen’s real-life wife Charlotte Emmerson – whose capacity for love is devastatingly suggested but destined to remain unfulfilled as Astrov’s attention is focused on Lucinda Millward’s Yelena, Serebryakov’s frustrated wife. And here too, Bailey allows delicate flickers of ‘what might have been’ as Yelena and Sonya finally bond with girlish delight and Astrov and Yelena’s flirtations are given a distinctively sexual charge.
Around them, supporting performances shine with exceptional detailing: David Yelland’s pretentious professor summoning a meeting with a bell, David Shaw-Parker’s laconically guitar-strumming Waffles who struggles to make an impression on people, and Caroline Blakiston’s aristocratic Maria sits as a symbol of the deterioration of old age.
William Dudley’s design seats the audience in the round (well, square)and makes incredibly imaginative use of entrances at each corner in which stained glass windows, mahogany bureaux and yes, doors appear, to suggest the constricting nature of this family home. Gregory Clark’s soundscape is beautifully evocative but Richard Howell’s lighting really stood out for me, the sultry summer haze of the first scene was astonishing and Howell maintained this excellent standard throughout.
Real, emotive, present – this truly is Chekhov refreshed for the current day, casting off any dusty aspersions one might attach to the classics in a similiar way to the Arcola’s excellent Seagull last year. Between Glen, Houston and Emmerson and the superb creative team at work here, this is an Uncle Vanya which sets the standard extremely high for the other productions of this play yet to come this year.