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.
How wonderful to see such a well-crafted play resurrected. I’ve seen an awful lot of pantomime lately – great fun for children but not worth reviewing here – and there seems little else around, so this is particularly welcome. It is unfair to compare this with Chekov as one or two reviewers have. This was written two generations earlier before the emancipation of the serfs. It was a time when the wealth of a “gentleman” was measured in the number of serfs he owned (serfs he could buy, sell, mortgage and abuse in any manner he liked) and the play is very much about what a real “gentleman” is. The four main parts are acted superbly: the very rich, brutish gentleman; the penniless gentleman he bullies, who lives on the charity of others but would never dream of demeaning himself by taking a job; the lady who has inherited the estate, and the young gentleman she has just married who is part of a new generation of “gentleman.” He does have a job and actually cares whether the serfs he has inherited through marriage have access to doctors, teachers and “spiritual guidance.” The play brilliantly morphs from comedy to tragedy and back and provides a fascinating insight into mid 19th Century Russian society backed up by the excellent programme.