John Hannah is perfect as Uncle Vanya, superbly supported, especially by @TheJoeDixon, Amanda Hale, Rebecca Night and Jack Shepherd in this unmissable production. It’s yet another reminder of what a superb playwright Chekhov was, re-written in this case by Anya Reiss.The direction by Russell Bolam is also spot on, sometimes allowing a simple look or action carry as much meaning as the words.
The references to iPads and mobile phones brought this production firmly up to date. For me, however, the play could not escape its original setting. The 19th century world of rural, middle class Russia is unlike any other. Distinguished by class from the serfs who were effectively slaves, the middle classes ran their country estates often on the brink of bankruptcy, obliged to play host to large numbers of middle class hangers-on, occasionally playing at professions, a doctor here and an architect there, while eating, drinking and lazing around. It is a world made very familiar not just through Chekhov but in recent productions of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic and Gorky’s Summerfolk. The brilliant Three Sisters at the Young Vic showed that you can perform it on table tops and a heap of black earth and still capture that strange world.
This makes a fascinating contrast to Summerfolk which I saw a few weeks ago. Maxim Gorky wrote the two plays at the same time and in both cases, the first half sets up the characters, the home owner with his poetry writing sister, the constant servant, various people in love with other people; the second half plays then out the drama resulting from these relationships and reminds us that behind this privileged group people are starving.
L to R: Geoffrey Streatfield as Protasov, Emma Lowndes as Liza and Justine Mitchell as Yelena. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith, courtesy National Theatre
I do not want to spoil it by giving away any more but a crucial incident in Summerfolk which plays out as farce becomes a tragedy in Children of the Sun. The acting, direction and set were, of course, superior to those at LAMDA but it is surprising how well the latter did in their relatively impoverished circumstances. Gorky has been shamefully overlooked for so long, perhaps because he was Stalin’s favourite playwright. Thoroughly recommended.
Gorky wrote this in the same year as Chekhov wrote the Cherry Orchard and it has a very similar feel. It is the world of the new, educated middle class. All grew up in the working class but now they are doctors, engineers, etc. At the centre are the ‘summerfolk’ staying at their dachas in the country, lazing about, drinking too much, having affairs. In the background are the real workers, the maid on constant call, the watchmen patrolling through the night to protect them from the poor. Gorky has a harder political edge than Chekhov which can get a little heavy handed but this is well worth watching, especially as it is free! LAMDA may be students but they are some our best, many already working professionally. They were very good in this but did not seem quite as home with the period as they were with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Having just seen my first Gorky play, I’m looking forward to Children of the Sun at the National Theatre next week.