Theatre review: Uncle Vanya, Hampstead Theatre
PUBLISHED: 10:22 10 December 2018 | UPDATED: 12:13 10 December 2018
Terry Johnson's adaptation gives Chekhov's classic a refreshing comic polish but misses some of its deeper emotion
As a writer Terry Johnson has a sharp eye for comic absurdity. It’s no surprise that his production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – in his own version – keeps the ennui of Chekhov’s satirized late 19th century rural aristocracy in check with scornful laughter.
The clarity of the language – here given a refreshingly salty polish – and precise staging are impressive but the production misses some of the deeper emotions.
Alan Cox as Vanya plays up the humour from his first entrance, arriving after a nap blinking dramatically. Prematurely aged from labouring – in his opinion, thanklessly, albeit with the assistance of his niece Sonia - he’s a graying 47-year-old who’s nevertheless more vigorous than some Vanyas. Alone with Yeliena, the beautiful young wife now married to his deceased sister’s husband, the narcissistic Professor Serebriakov [a brilliantly infuriating Robin Soans], Vanya jumps impishly onto a swing as they skirt around the matter of his thinly disguised love for her. When riled by the Professor’s plan to sell the estate, Vanya rages at the injustice, shouting ‘I’ve worked my arse off.’ The potential for humour is consistently exploited. The curtain at the end of each act is executed with a comic abruptness, dispelling lingering feeling.
While some of Chekhov’s gift for conjuring atmosphere is lost - the storm is perfunctory and there’s not much sense of the relentless heat - there is poetry in the exquisite set with its birch trees growing inside the frame of the manor house, beautifully lit by Ben Ormerod.
Johnson makes a strong feature of the polarized female characters, Sonia and Yeliena. Superbly played by Alice Bailey Johnson, Sonia here is no drudge but rather a young woman of determination and intelligence, riven with self-doubt. In her debut role, Abbey Lee as Yeliena has an otherworldly beauty and plays Yeliena’s bland allure well. Crippled by her shadowy sense of self but sly when love dictates action, Yeliena’s rejection of idealistic doctor Astrov [Alec Newman – excellent] doesn’t fully catch the contradictions of her character.
Johnson handles the testing farcical climax well. But overall I left wanting to feel more.