By George Rayson
Glyn Morrow’s hypnotic guitar lures us into Helen Wilson’s charming, funny, and poignant production of Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ York Theatre Royal’s Studio space is pared back, with cupboard, window, samavar and desks the only signifiers of place. The strength of this production doesn’t lie in the ‘realism’ of its setting then, but in its cast, who successfully convey the complexity of emotion that Chekhov asks of his actors. I felt myself transported across this emotional range too, and the play is always conscious of its audience. When Yelena asks Sonya, ‘why are you laughing?’ we take a step back and ask ourselves the same question. Wilson’s production is, I think, more concerned with the counter-intuitive ways in which emotions work rather than giving an overtly political or conceptual framework to the play. That may sound escapist, but I actually found it worthy escapism, a cathartic experience where the prominence of self-destructiveness has a lot of resonance with a contemporary ‘millenial’ audience.
The pace of the first act dipped at the start of the second, with some missed cues and heavy breathing to fill the time while remembering lines, but was brought back around in the beautifully orchestrated scene between Yelena and Sonya just before the interval. The two are at cross-purposes, emotionally conflicted within themselves and with each other, and the difficulty of this emotional register is conveyed admirably by the superb performances of Amanda Dales (Yelena) and Martha Owen (Sonya). Owen’s performance is characterised by the breadth of her emotional range, and the subtlety in her looks, fleeting and lingering, which leave a marked impression on us. Her final speech is exercised with care, precision, and control to be both rousingly intense and heart-breakingly desperate.
The play is not exactly focused on its titular character: the fact that it is called ‘Uncle’ Vanya suggests that Sonya is always in mind, and it could easily be said that she is the linchpin of the piece. Wilson’s production doesn’t try to place Vanya at the centre, he often occupies the margins of scenes, sitting at the fringes of the stage pictures. Maurice Crichton’s Vanya is nonetheless stirring. He manages to be both quixotic and aware of his own doom, always speaking with a ‘why not?’ shrug of the shoulders. He is also not entirely pitiable, as we recoil with Yelena at his constant reaching out to take her hands: it is deliberately and effectively uncomfortable. Astrov calls Vanya a ‘buffoon,’ and the luridness of his tie, his skewiff collar, and the vain hope with which Crichton presents the autumn roses is as much clownish as it is tragic. Of course, the comedy does necessarily dry up as the play progresses, and Crichton’s portrayal of Vanya’s breakdown(s) is incredibly moving.
Astrov is another ‘supporting’ character who takes centrality. Supposedly modelled on Chekhov himself, he is the play’s male object of desire (what does that say about his author’s view of himself?) Ben Sawyer’s performance is strong, (although he doesn’t always know what to do with his hands and feet), keeping us charmed and interested throughout his lengthy speeches. Special mention too should go to Margaret Hillier and Glyn Morrow as Nana and Telegin respectively for their hilarious performances as the aged stalwarts bent on maintaining the order of tea at 8 and dinner at 1. The strength of the cast as an ensemble is the production’s greatest praise, as convincing individual performances unite into a sparkling communal effort.
Uncle Vanya runs until 10th March at York Theatre Royal. See the website for more details.