Ian Barritt, Alys Thomas, Daisy Douglas, Avril Elgar, Simon Armstrong, Paul Currier, David Plimmer, Jacqueline Tong, Dan Winter
Over the past nine years Bristol’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory have built up a strong reputation for their inspired stagings of the works of Shakespeare, but they are also no strangers to Chekhov, producing an acclaimed Three Sisters in 2005.
Here they break away from the Bard once again, and relocate to the Bristol Old Vic for the first time, with a resounding production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Vanya is a tragicomedy about the disruption caused by Serebrykov, a retired Professor of Art and his young wife Yelena, after they arrive at his country estate in the summer of 1896.
The estate is looked after by Vanya and his niece, Sonya, Serebrykov’s ‘plain’ daughter, who has been pining after the local doctor, Astrov. As the professor antagonises his family, events culminate in the failed shooting of Serebrykov by Vanya after his proposing to sell the estate.
The relatively bare stage has been specially extended into the auditorium where it is enveloped by the Old Vic’s horseshoe balconies at the front, while at the rear, there is a large projection screen showing blue skies or storm clouds depending on the atmosphere. This makes the space appear much bigger than normal, something that Harriet de Winton’s simple set design takes advantage of, bringing to life the feel of the vast Serebrykov estate in rural Russia.
Indeed, the attention to detail in this production is exemplary, from the delivery of the text by the cast to the stunning soundscape by Dan Jones which runs throughout; even the scene changes – featuring recordings of the professor’s voice – contain a sophisticated level of detail, and while in no way rushed, never intrude on the piece. In fact they serve to reinforce his oppressive hold over the household.
Andrew Hilton’s direction is masterful and his cast hit the right notes all the way through the production. Simon Armstrong is a resonant Vanya and Daisy Douglas is fantastic as Sonya, giving her a genuinely heartfelt sadness. Astrov and Telegin, played by Paul Currier and David Plimmer respectively, keep the pace of the production moving along with their quick-witted delivery giving way to sincerity where necessary.
The high moment of the production happens in the third act, following Astrov and Yelena’s embrace and their discovery by Vanya. Serebryakov’s subsequent proposition is met with a perfactly judged level of explosion and anger from Vanya, a moment beautiful in its contrast with Sonya’s later plea to her father. The soliloquies are delivered exquisitely and Hilton’s use of the extended stage makes them seem totally in keeping with the mood of the piece, as if the characters were truly sharing an intimate secret with the audience.
This is a captivating production and one that is more than capable of gripping those unfamiliar with Chekhov’s classic play – it brings a freshness to the text. British theatre needs more companies like Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, who can handle the classics with suche verve and energy.