Chekhov trans. Andrew Upton
03 November 2017 to 25 November 2017
Making fun out of depression is a specialised art – Tony Hancock could do it, and one or two others. Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a kind of comedy, and Walter Meierjohann has taken that seriously in his new production of the play for HOME.
Particularly in the first two acts, he’s looking for the laughs, and yes he gets a good few. It’s all to do with delivery, of course – the way you tell ’em – and that’s down to the actors and their characterizations (more of which below).
This is the UK premiere of Andrew Upton’s new translation of the play, and notable for that, regardless. Upton’s given it words that ring true for now, brilliantly so, and perhaps the worst temptation is to try to bring the whole thing into the early 21st century and place it in our society. Bit like the Royal Exchange’s Our Town … Our Dacha, perhaps?
After all, this is theatrical naturalism, or realism, isn’t it? In some traditions the two are distinct literary genres – but is realism natural, or naturalism real? I could never remember the difference between them. Meierjohann has the soliloquies delivered straight to the audience (even raising some house light at one point), so there’s a clear artificiality there as well.
Obstinately, the play remains of its own time and place. We don’t often see senior academics living off the rents from their run-down country estates, or intelligent medics living frustrated lives attending to the needs of rural backwaters – or indeed frustrated middle-aged men trying it on with the young second wife of their widowed brother-in-law. Doctors don’t ride 30 miles to see their patients; we don’t divide the world into ‘peasants’ and ‘intelligentsia’ (not often, anyway); when Serebrayakov, the retired professor, is called ‘Excellency’, even in this translation, you realize you’re in another world.
The set, by Steffi Wurster, evokes a dreamlike, three-sides-of-a-square locale which changes from indoors to out without anyone noticing. The music (Marc Tritschler) includes a modern player-piano (slightly out of tune, as it would be in the sticks) that strikes up autumnal motifs all on its own, since Yelena (the young second wife) can’t bring herself to play it. So far so surreal.
But the portrayals have to be real people, as mostly they’re saying real lines. It stands or falls on that. Nick Holder, as Vanya, was outstanding: he has got the man – uncannily redolent of someone I know who smiles through a fairly depressive frame of mind, awkward and brave at the same time. Jason Merrells, much the most ‘modern’ man in the story as Dr Astrov, with his concerns about the environment and mankind’s destructive power, along with his emotional honesty, is right on the case, too. David Fleeshman (Serebrayakov) has a big challenge – I can’t recall meeting any professor in real life quite so vapid and yet respected as Chekhov made him – and turns him into a bit of a caricature, but a highly entertaining one.
Hara Yannas is an obviously appealing Yelena (the young second wife, lusted after by both Vanya and Astrov) and manages to give her enough self-awareness and adroitness to deal with the men’s attentions in a way we probably recognize as normal nowadays (even if their actions are straight from the 19th century). Katie West takes a bold grip of Sonya, the daughter of the first marriage, condemned to live in loneliness on the country estate and unrequitedly looking for love from Dr Astrov. Is she a simpleton? Not really, more a naïve whose world is very circumscribed but who’s got simple goodness in her.
The support roles (Joanna McCallum, Carol Macready, Kriss Dosanjh and Joseph Hardy, the latter also doubling as accordion player) were quite adequate, though little hinged on them.
The whole thing put me in mind of that statue of Engels outside the theatre. It’s a rare example of comic sculpture, taking a Stalinist-brutalist view of a middle-class Mancunian who probably never thought he’d be a hero of the Communist cause. The same probably applies to Chekhov if you try to link him to 1917.
Reviewer: Robert Beale