“I could have been a Dostoevsky”
Opening the season for Chichester’s 2012 Festival, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary no less, is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Roger Allam stars in Jeremy Herrin’s production in the Minerva studio, which utilises a translation by Michael Frayn but given that it is barely a week since I saw and adored The Print Room’s production of the same play, the bar was raised really quite high for this one. But setting productions up against each other achieves little and though my preferences ended up in West London rather than West Sussex, one can appreciate that perhaps they are attuned to different audiences.
Chekhov’s tale of a man who has spent most of his working life as the steward of his late sister’s Russian country estate but is thrown into inconsolable desolation at the realisation that he may well have wasted his life in servitude. The gloomy atmosphere pervades to encompass all the residents of the house and matters are exacerbated with the arrival of ex-brother-in-law Serebryakov, with his glamorous, much younger wife Yelena. His plans and her presence rouses the beginnings of some response but lifetimes of inaction and repression prove hard to shake off for all concerned.
The pace in Herrin’s production feels markedly sedate throughout, Frayn’s translation often has a lugubrious feel to it which stretches out over long passages and seemingly influences the performances. There’s little sense that there was ever much dynamism in this household: Dervla Kirwan’s Sonya is a muted, almost too subservient presence, Alexander Hanson’s Astrov never hit the mark for me and Anthony O’Donnell and Maggie McCarthy are sadly underused as the supporting comrades.
Allam is able to transcend this at key moments, coming across with a fiercely self-mocking characteristic which is much less avuncular than the title might suggest. He wrings painful comedy from the merest of actions and successfully mines the pathetic desperation that follows his abortive attempt at action. But I’m not sure I got the whole sense of the man that might have been, he says these things but I never truly believed him, my feeling was that his time had well and truly passed. Other key players are aged upwards to keep the balance between the characters right, but it does shift the dynamic of the play a little too far. Lara Pulver’s Yelena consequently becomes a little too old to be truly convincing as she is and I generally didn’t care for Timothy West’s aged professor who lacked the careless callousness to push through his plans.
So Chichester’s Vanya was good, very good in some places, but ultimately not really for me. It didn’t help that I had seen one so recently that really had spoken to me with its refreshing reassessment of the play and the dynamics within it. But that is part of what London’s fringe venues are so good at doing where CFT’s strengths are arguably in presenting classic theatre classically. It undoubtedly looks extremely handsome in Peter McKintosh’s birch-lined design and opulent costumes and generally speaking it does ticks the boxes for a quality traditional Chekhov.