A really fine Chekhov production, such as David Hunt's excellent Uncle Vanya, reveals that however selfishly his characters may behave, they are all written with supreme compassion. It is this that makes the experience of watching his plays so overwhelming.
The knock-on effect of this extraordinary humanity is that, unlike writers whose subsidiary characters are there to move the plot or merely to reflect the lives of the protagonist, in Chekhov even actors in small roles rightly imagine that at any given moment the play is all about them. Indeed, this play could easily be entitled "Yelena, the Professor", or "Astrov".
For the director, the job is all about balance. Cast it unevenly or push one actor to the fore, and the play falls lopsidedly. Get the balance right, as Hunt does, and the audience spends an entire evening hanging upon every moment, discovering hidden depths in the play and switching sympathies.
Take the series of confrontations, beginning with young, plain Sonya's confession that for the past six years she has secretly been in love with the idealistic Dr Astrov. Rachel Dowling as Yelena seizes the initiative. When Astrov arrives to show her his plans for his beloved forest, Hunt lets Yelena control the scene by placing her not in the chair that Astrov suggests, but one in a much more powerful position, thus forcing Astrov to defer to her. It's a tiny, brilliant touch that not only dictates the tone of the scene, but also sets up a status game that charges up the following confrontation as Astrov makes urgent, passionate love to Yelena.
At this point, the hapless Vanya (a boldly foolish Gregory Floy) catches sight of them. The audience gasps, but Hunt thrillingly stretches the moment of discovery almost beyond endurance, allowing us to register surprise, amusement and terror on top of one another as Vanya stares at them from the other side of the stage.
David Knapman's bleached wood set allows for a supremely intelligent use of wide space which is filled by the beautifully placed playing of Mike Poulton's vivid, fluid translation, wonderfully pivoted between darkness and laughter. The cast are never afraid to let a moment resonate in stillness, a sure sign of strength in understatement. In the final scene, when Astrov tries in vain to help gawky, gauche Sonya (Shuna Snow) step down from a chair, she speaks volumes in silence in her deeply touching refusal to look at him.
Amid worries about the collapse of regional repertory theatre, forming an ensemble company with no star names to do exciting work rather than programming cheap tours is a seriously brave option. Mounting Chekhov on just three-and-a-half weeks' rehearsal is braver still. To do it so successfully is cause for celebration.
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