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On Theatre

Bring on the therapists

Chekhovian gloom echoes across the centuries, but Vanya needs new impetus to avoid museum status, says Anne McElvoy

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a tantalising play and the hardest to stage of his great works. More than any other, it speaks to present discontents — a gnawing sense that life has not delivered on its promise, alcohol-fuelled depression and an enveloping ennui. Written (from an earlier draft) in 1898 towards the end of Chekhov’s life, the play is about extremes of human emotion — Vanya ring a gun at the infuriating relative he believes has ruined his life, plotting his own end with a vial of morphine and indulging in a doomed crush which can only end in humiliation. ere is enough dysfunction to keep an army of therapists in business.

But the play also shimmers with wit in a Play at Goes Wrong vein — the morphine is confiscated, the gunshots are in vain and lust gives way to a danse macabre of misunderstandings. In Ian Rickson’s production for London’s Pinter Theatre, the dilapidation of the Serebryakov country estate is underscored in a set which combines crumbling brickwork with dusty chandeliers: the chasm between the household’s aspirations and the reality of its fading circumstances.

For all its popularity, the balance of Uncle Vanya as a theatrical experience is hard for directors to strike

For all its popularity, the balance of Uncle Vanya as a theatrical experience is hard for directors to strike. Chekhovian gloom and existential angst echo across the centuries, but Vanya needs new impetus to avoid the museum status of a revered classic. Each generation has its great reworkings of the play, from Michael Redgrave as Vanya and Joan Plowright as Sonya in the stand-out 1950s version to David Mamet’s 1990s overhaul starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore in the Louis Malle movie Vanya on 42nd Street.

Here, Conor Macpherson’s adaptation treats Chekhov’s dense language to an equally irreverent makeover, only ruder. “Stop wanging on,” explodes Vanya in Basil Fawlty fury. Toby Jones’s dishevelled Vanya looks anaesthetised for the first half of the play, trapped in a cycle of Oblomovian sleep, drink and despair, briefly enlivened by a fascination with Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar).

If you caught Jones in The Birthday Party, you will recognise echoes of Pinter in his delivery and the same ability to tread the line between being darkly unstable and riveting at the same time. The rewriting of classics in modern speech tests how far you can mess with the patina of a lost time. Andrew Upton’s The White Guard at the National Theatre a decade ago used regional dialect to capture the maelstrom of post-revolutionary Ukraine. Cleverly, Macpherson allows older members of the family, such as Vanya’s deluded mother (Maria Dearbhla Molloy) to keep their precise speech rhythms, while the range and f-count of Vanya rises and the weary local doctor Astrov (Richard Armitage) collapses in drink into the sweary register of the annoyed twenty-first century bourgeoisie.

We do get sporadic mishits, notably when Vanya’s mama declares, “You had the good fortune to be born a man with agency. What I wouldn’t have done with that agency.” Matriarchs on stage do not spout lecture-room jargon. Where is the Tsarist censor when you need him?

The other challenge of plays about depressed casts is that they are (wait for it) a bit depressing, and some of this sense is catching. The set (by Rae Smith) is dimly lit, with random foliage poking through brickwork cracks and the kind of piano we know will not be played without someone else disapproving so that lethargy can settle over the stalls, as well as the cast.

But there is no drama, I reckon, which speaks better to the sense of repetition of life. “Everything’s the same but worse” is Vanya’s paradoxical kvetch. It captures the existential essence of a drama which foreshadows deforestation in Astrov’s doomed crusade to save the forests with a Greta Thunbergian mix of zeal and moralising: “The forests are disappearing, the rivers dry up and wildlife is exterminated. The climate is ruined and the earth — it becomes poorer and uglier by the day.”

Midlife disillusion would be nothing without misplaced love and the fantasy of escape. e sneaky reassurance of Chekhov is that such unedifying traits become understandable. Vanya fixates on the indolent Yelena, hopeful Sonya on the distracted Astrov and a chain of unconsummated liaisons results.

We think of Russian classics as the product of a bygone world of samovars and pre-revolutionary discontents, but the internal deliberations of his characters t the world we inherited, even without the estate and servants. It is a world in which love is never really free and revolutions are doomed to bring societies back to circumstances they sought to escape. Hope and fear are locked up in mortgaged property, only to acquire more liability for the next generation. “The same, but worse,” as Vanya might add.

Perhaps it is the uneasy feeling of our own era, a political storm behind us (sort of ) in Brexit and theatres emptying out in the coronovirus lockdown, but this Vanya felt particularly poignant to me. Jones’s incarnation is not the most powerful or philosophical we have seen, but then Chekhov’s Vanya (a diminutive of John) is an Everyman, ordinary in his self-decep- tion, at odds with the fate life has dealt him.

The final flourish of Sonya’s speech is one of the most beautiful in Russian theatre — “Beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us.” What does Vanya make of it, sitting alongside his accepting niece, compliant once again in the toil of the estate accounts? Chekhov withholds Vanya’s response from her and from us, at the final moment — and continues shuffling the papers.

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