UNCLE VANYA, ANTON CHEKHOV, BLEGRADE THEATRE, COVENTRY, 2011
Who should one feel for most in Uncle Vanya? Should it be Vanya, unmarried, approaching 50 and wracked by a midlife crisis after years of thankless toil on his brother-in-law's rural estate? Should it be the object of his odium – Professor Serebryakov – who, now old, sickly and retired from academia, shrinks at looming obscurity and oblivion? Or maybe it should be the latter's second wife, the beautiful Yelena, surrounded by dissatisfied, devoted men and fast subsiding into futile restlessness? Of course, in a good production, one should be swept along on a tide of conflicting emotions: Vanya should be a pitiful creature and a self-absorbed ass, the professor, a jumped-up nobody but no desiccated caricature either – and Yelena, too, must appear full of stymied potential and yet lacking some essential inner spark. Even Astrov, the visiting doctor and keen environmentalist, must be a figure of inspiring integrity and also just another fond and fallible man.
In their flaws lies the play's genius. Helena Kaut-Howson's revival at the Belgrade, Coventry is very good indeed – so beautifully modulated it catches the rich ambivalences of Chekhov's writing. These Russians irritate us, move us, make us laugh, make us want to weep – “are” us, too, somehow, only trapped in a different time-period from which they gaze out across the centuries to come, certain of one thing: that they are destined to be forgotten. Polish-born Kaut-Howson, using a new translation co-scripted by herself and her leading man, Jon Strickland, gives us long, aching pauses, the haunting refrain of piano music, the buzz of insects whirring through birch trees, which we see, sinuous and oppressive, planted about Sophie Jump's meticulously designed domestic interior. In terms of atmosphere, it feels authentic, and the acting rings exquisitely true too. Yes, Strickland's lean, balding, grey-bearded Vanya could build a greater sense of explosive indignation, especially when running amok, but he catches perfectly the agonised air of the ageing nondescript who has moved into a bewildering chapter of his life where all manner of resentments keep bubbling to the surface. Following her impressive showing earlier this year in Daphne du Maurier's The Years Between in Northampton, Marianne Oldham again confirms a rare talent for withheld emotion with a wonderfully luminous, languorous performance as Yelena. There are many other very fine performances here too but if Oldham isn't a big star sometime soon, I'll down a samovar’s worth of cold tea in penance.
Dominic Cavendish, Sunday Telegraph