Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya
York Theatre Royal has been hosting the English Touring Theatre‘s production of Uncle Vanya, directed by Peter Hall, for the past few days. We were, luckily, at the matinee on Saturday afternoon.
This is not a play I know very well, though I love Chekhov’s insight into the shared deep place which is simultaneously the seat of tragedy and comedy. Although he always called his dramas comedies, he must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek, as Uncle Vanya demonstrates, because he serves up a mixture of the two, in a word, tragicomedy. With Chekhov you never really know whether to laugh or cry.
And I suspect that he was the first dramatist to give us this cocktail of tragedy and comedy. With Shakespeare you can choose among the plays, tragedy or comedy. But they don’t come in a mix. With Ibsen you get undiluted tragedy. But Chekhov sees the humour, or the moments of humour, within a tragic life; and he is ever aware of the tragedy in the comedy of everyday life.
The casting of this production is inspired. Nicholas le Prevost as Vanya is a shambling avuncular figure, helplessly in love with the creamy and unavailable Yelena (played by Michelle Dockery); a character who is so inept that he fails to shoot his enemy at point-blank range, twice.
Yelena is a trophy wife, a sexually frustrated and bored beauty, shackled to a man old enough to be her grandfather; a woman who can envisage no existence for herself beyond what tomorrow will certainly bring.
Neil Pearson as the doctor represents an idealism about the natural world and an awareness that we can have an influence on our time. But we catch him at a stage in his life when he is turning increasingly to alcohol and slipping away from reality into the arms of cynicism.
As ever in Chekhov’s plays, everyone wants the people who are unavailable, while no one at all wants those who would willingly make themselves so. A contemporary audience is jogged constantly by the text, which reminds us of our proximity to Chekhov’s vision. The concerns about ecology, the echoes of the way we are captivated by celebrity culture, our foolishness and illusions are all illuminated here.
The tour continues to GUILDFORD’S YVONNE ARNAUD 11 March – 15 March, NORTHERN STAGE, NEWCASTLE 18 March – 22 March (not 21st), MILTON KEYNES THEATRE 26 March – 29 March, and MALVERN THEATRES 1 April – 5 April. If any of those are within striking distance of you, and you can get a ticket, do go to see it.