Uncle Vanya, Arcola Theatre, London
Tuesday 03 May 2011
David Lan, the Young Vic's artistic director, said of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that it is about people driving each other mad. In Helena Kaut-Howson's brittle, brutal production, Jon Strickland's Vanya threatens to kill himself in the first act.
He then, in a fantasy sequence, wrestles the unobtainable and impossibly beautiful Yelena to the ground. The doctor gets drunk. People can't breathe. The storm breaks with a hideous crack. Even the old professor is angry about being in the country, while Vanya's mother has retreated into books and pamphlets. Kaut-Howson shows these people wrapped up in self-obsessed sadness.
The lighting changes with the mood or with the weather, not with the time of day. The music behaves similarly, underpinning some scenes, disrupting others. Unfortunately, the acting doesn't always match this emotional bravura. Strickland's Vanya is not as heartbreaking as Michael Gambon's or as tragically submerged as Stephen Dillane's. He is also slightly too old for a midlife crisis and the regal bohemianism of his old mother, played by Ellen Sheean as a crop-haired bookworm.
But he is absurd, pop-eyed behind rimless spectacles, pliant as a bendy toy. His assault on the professor (Geoffrey Whitehead) is ridiculously fumbled, the gunshots rather feeble phuts, the second producing the bunch of spring roses – held up defensively by the professor – forlornly gathered for Yelena.
Yelena is the most difficult role – Marianne Oldham presents an outstandingly beautiful woman trapped in everyone else's idea of how outstandingly beautiful she is. She comes gloriously alive, briefly, in the scene with Hara Yannas's scrubbed and soulful Sonya. Simon Gregor is a nicely sardonic Astrov, a small and wiry man whose passion for planting trees and dealing with climate change has been worn down by work and alcoholism. His lunge at Yelena is more lustful than Vanya's, but just as desperate. He is smelling her hair while trying to interest her in maps and charts.
This is an odd, bumpy, engaging Vanya, not a great one. The work goes on to the sound of the abacus and the guitar of the pock-marked Telegin (Paul Bigley), who is here dubbed "Porridge" instead of the usual "Waffles".
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