Vanya @ Gate Theatre, London

cast list
Fiona Button, Robert Goodale, Susie Trayling, Simon Wilson

directed by
Natalie Abrahami

Ambitious and intelligent, this bold rewriting of Uncle Vanya delivers all of the original poignancy of the Chekhov classic while making his characters come alive in new and surprising ways. I say ambitious not because this would be Vanya set in Brixton or on a space ship indeed, the time and setting is left as neutral as possible but because Sam Holcroft effectively completely rewrote Chekhovs play. In doing so she carts off the trappings of Russian realism, deletes all but four main characters, and concentrates on exploring their psychologies in a series of added monologues: a process in which she is often led to portray them as quite different as what Chekhov originally conceived them to be.

Vanya (Robert Goodale), the tragic joker who has wasted away his talents by managing his brother-in-laws estate all his life to now find himself unappreciated and ignored by all, retains his self-deprecating humour and emotional intensity, but is considerably funnier in the new version. Vanya’s niece Sonya (Fiona Button) is given the main role in this production and also undergoes the greatest change an unassuming and plain but cuttingly intelligent girl in the original, she here becomes a much more nave, open person, a bit slow on the uptake but the only character that is unafraid of her emotion. Her unrequited love, Doctor Astrov (Simon Wilson), is also quite different from Chekhov’s romantic alcoholic: here he is more of a self-deceived villain, preaching ideals of community and love, but really too selfish for any commitment or self-sacrifice. Yelena (Susie Trayling), the object of Vanyas affections, likewise acquires a darker, more manipulative nature.

What is so brilliant about these subtle departures from Chekhovs set-up is that they actually allow the play to remain faithful to the original themes of passed up opportunity, fear of rejection and emotional cowardice. Holcroft’s elegant style and great character insight deserve all the praise here. I want to wake up and taste you on my toothbrush, says Vanya in one of his monologues: how better to sum up the old bachelors silly, boyish pining.

The cast is quite excellent as well. Fiona Button creates the new Sonya as a goofy but immediately likeable creature, while Goodale succeeds in making coherent what is in fact quite a complex and neurotic character, carrying off Vanya’s grovelling declarations of love, sardonic jokes and final despair with equal conviction. Susie Trayling and Simon Wilson are also well-cast and do their roles justice.

Tom Scutt’s thoughtful design deserves a special mention. He encloses the cast into a revolving tea crate with fragile printed on it. While obvious, the metaphor works incredibly well the gentle light brown tones lending a particular fragility to the setting and at the same time provides for an elegant solution to the numerous scene changes.

Perhaps the play is only slightly let down towards the end, when the unspoken conflicts between the four burst into the open. Here Holcroft differs decidedly from Chekhov who is after all the master of subdued feeling, and uses open confrontation between them to bring home some of the crucial points of the play. Individually, these confrontations are effective say, when Sonya confronts Astrov about his duplicity or when Astrov demonstrates to Vanya that his misery isn’t the product of his circumstance but his own fear of life. However, as these powerful scenes are all strung together at the end they come off as a bit too melodramatic.

But in all Vanya is a remarkable achievement. It shows a writer and a production team with both a great sensitivity to the issues that Chekhov captured so ably a hundred years ago and also great ability to stage them today, in a genuinely inventive and compelling way.

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