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A CurtainUp London London Review
Uncle Vanya

What can we do? We must live out our lives
---- Sonya
Uncle Vanya
Rachael Stirling as Yelena
(Photo: Sue Hyman Associates)
David Mamet's stripped-down version of Chekhov's tragicomic masterpiece was made into a fascinating film by Louis Malle in 1994, starring Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore. Shot in the then crumbling New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, it showed the actors both in and out of character as they rehearsed the play. This stage version does not have that extra layer but it retains the same quality of informality, with the faded splendour of the Victorian Wilton's Music Hall seeming to be a fitting backdrop for a drama about the decline of Tsarist Russian gentry on their dilapidated estate.

The household routine of Vanya (Colin Stinton), his mother (Lucinda Curtis) and niece Sonya (Catherine Cusack) is disrupted by the extended visit of the retired professor (Philip Voss), Sonya's father who was married to Vanya's late sister, and his new young wife Yelena (Rachael Stirling). The pompous, hypochondriac professor makes a demanding guest, while the attractive but indolent Yelena proves irresistible not only to Vanya but also the family doctor Astrov (Ronan Vibert), beloved by Sonya. Work is neglected in the stagnant atmosphere of self-pity, self-indulgence, unrequited love and unfulfilled potential.

Unfortunately, despite a real sense of intimacy, the tone in Hugh Fraser's underpowered production is so low key that it seems almost as casual as the contemporary clothes worn by the cast. Understated realism is all very well, especially for a play about people whose lives drift along passively and aimlessly, but the underlying feeling of the quiet desperation of wasted lives is missing. With no set, few props and hardly any sound effects, this is minimalist theatre indeed but although it eschews the social context to concentrate on the basic human drama it fails to penetrate the emotional core.

The trouble is that because there is a lack of intensity, the relationships between the characters don't really ring true. Stinton's Vanya is so laid back - bored rather than depressed, facetious rather than bitter - that he doesn't seem to mind too much when he sees Yelena kissing Astrov and when he ultimately loses his temper with the professor and tries to shoot him it merely seems absurdly over the top because nothing has led up to it. Similarly, there's no sign that Cusack's boyish matter-of-fact Sonya aches with passion for the oblivious Astrov, whom Vibert portrays as affably apathetic rather than a highly able world-weary man who still performs his duty but whose idealistic fire is all burned out.

However, Philip Voss gives the professor an almost Shakespearean stature as an elderly man of failing powers aware not only of his own mortality but also wracked by doubt as to whether his career actually made any difference to anything or anyone. His increasing dependence on Yelena is believable but we don't really understand why she married him, though Rachael Stirling's sexy, husky-voiced performance successfully conveys also a deep melancholic realization of having thrown away her chances of happiness - only duty remains.

CurtainUp has reviewed quite a few other productions of this play. For link to these and all about Chekhov, see our Chekhov Backgrounder.
Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by David Mamet from an English translation by Vlada Chernomirdik
Directed by Hugh Fraser

Starring: Colin Stinton, Ronan Vibert, Rachael Stirling, Catherine Cusack, Philip Voss
With: Lucinda Curtis, Michael Gunn, Marlene Sidaway
Design: Charlie Cridlan
Lighting: Nick Holdridge
An Ann Pennington production
Running time: two and a quarter hours (including 15 minutes interval)
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
Booking to 10 February 2007
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on January 26th performance at Wilton's Music Hall, Graces Alley, off Ensign Street, London E1 8JB (Tube: Tower Hill/Aldgate East)
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