The ever risk taking Red Stitch has surprised theatre goers this season with a nod to the Russian classic Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. Written in 1899 (and first directed by the highly regarded Stanislavski) it is surely well known to many from school and university study including myself and may have seemed an unexpected inclusion to their performance calendar not just because of Red Stitch’s reputation for embracing new works but also the sheer size of the cast that this play demands on their small stage – however, the end result was absolutely delightful. Playwright Annie Baker has carefully shaped and edited the classic text to allow the performance troupe an opportunity to present this forlorn country tale for a modern audience. And in the skilled hands of director Nadia Tass and her cast we are treated to a revival that is true to the essence of Chekhov’s intentions whilst breathing new life into certain moments especially the tension, passion and comedy components so that it does not seem unnecessarily long despite it being three acts.
For those unfamiliar with this iconic work it centres on the elderly Professor Serebryakov and his second wife, Yelena who visit the country household that supports them that was inherited by his late first wife. Both Vionitsky (Uncle Vanya), brother of the first wife and Astrov, the local Doctor, both fall for the glamorous, much younger Yelena. Sonya, the Professor’s daughter by his first wife, who has worked with Vanya to keep the estate going, meanwhile suffers from her unrequited feelings for Dr. Astrov. Matters are brought to a crisis when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate.
David Whiteley as Vionitsky perfectly embodied the begrudging, hardworking Uncle Vanya. He picked his moments of self pity and laments carefully, using his disparaging comments of the Professor’s intellectual shame and predatory insincerity as a juxtaposition to his inability to change his circumstances. His insightful use of pausing added to his captivating presence and troubled mind on stage. The angst and tension he showed especially in Act Three was authentically true. Rosie Lockhart shone in the role of one of two long suffering heroines Yelena – graceful, flawless and showing great thought to her inner turmoil of being trapped in a marriage with the elderly professor she thought was in love with at the time but realises now it was mere intellectual celebrity infatuation. She now yearns for something more, something to beat the boredom and this came across strongly through not just with her cries of suffering but also her measured moments of silence, wistful glances out the windows that seem to evoke a sense of entrapment and entertaining the advances of Dr Astrov played by Ben Prendergast and with whom she shared a believable chemistry with. Smartly, Lockhart also took the opportunity for strong assertions when warranted, showing the three dimensional depth and thought process behind her interpretation. Her disappointment at the end of the play in not obtaining what she thinks she might deserve was pointedly sincere. Prendergast equally perfected his role as the charismatic, forlorn and self engrossed constant visitor. He has a commanding presence and displayed that knack for deliberately speaking past people to exemplify his one track minded infatuation and failure to see another opportunity right beside him in Sonya. In this role of the second long afflicted heroine, Eva Seymour really established an engaging character that you genuinely feel empathy for. She moves with purpose and control, understanding the importance of stillness and listening, yet also using anguished facial expressions to really illuminate unrequited love for Dr Astrov and restricted household situation. Perhaps the only jarring aspect of her performance was the inconsistent accent especially when sharing the stage with actors of Eastern European backgrounds.
Marina Kacmarekk as Nanny Marina was amusing and enjoyable. Her rhythm and timing really added to the comic nature of her role and situation, and yet was carefully done so as to never overplay the moment and keep it rooted in the natural situation. Kristof Kaczmarek looked and sounded the part of the Professor. His demeanour and delivery revealed him to be the pompous self obsessed character he is. Justin Hocking as Telegin had that great mix of pathos and comic relief. We see him as someone who thinks he can remain both useful and invisible in the household by remaining optimistic and contributing soothing dulcet tones from his guitar strumming but his constant teary breakdowns reveal another true Telegin. Olga Makeeva as Maria always impresses even in such a tiny role – she demonstrated the boredom of their lives through comic napping and then her misplaced hankering for supporting the parasitic Professor whilst ignoring Vanya’s own needs and the needs of the household. It’s a shame Chekhov did not write a bigger role!
The sparse set design by Sophie Woodward was appropriate to the time and setting and allowed for free movement of the cast of eight. The costumes (again by Woodward) were all well chosen though it seemed interesting that there was no change of costume for any of the characters at any stage. This became more pointedly an issue perhaps after act 2 and especially for the Professor and Yelena who could have symbolically shown their carelessness for funds through changes of clothing. Craig Carter’s soundscape of the natural world outside worked effectively at each juncture and combined beautifully with the more classical interludes.
Red Stitch have proven that reviving a classic is worth the effort and well appreciated by audiences who like a window back to another time and place and yet where some of the themes and considerations are still prevalent today. Also there is an admiration that this kind of show demands something different from its actors and the creative team. Where this ensemble excels is how all the individual idiosyncrasies of their own characters provided an insight into the whole Russian household and yet cleverly combined to present a holistic picture – no easy feat and a credit to the direction by Tass and her cast to trust her decisions of how to present this to us. The self absorbed remarks that are treated with indifference by others highlight how they themselves are self absorbed and apathetic to each other’s needs. And this central idea was perfectly highlighted by the poignant ending moments. Definitely worth checking out this classic interpretation.