Uncle Vanya, Minerva Theatre, Chichester


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The Independent Culture

Caryl Brahms, an astute critic and a funny writer, said that characters in Chekhov always harked back to their beginnings but learnt no lesson from their past; they were content to sit around the samovar and talk.

This observation, while partly true, discounts the sense you also get in the best productions of life draining away from a ship-wrecked crew who are nonetheless clinging to the raft.

So although Uncle Vanya can’t do very much about his predicament, there’s a comic energy about his resistance to it, summed up in the great scene at Chichester where Roger Allam enters with a bunch of autumn roses to find their intended recipient in the arms of the doctor.

And then, when the professor, who’s married to the unobtainable, languorous Yelena, declares he’s about to sell the estate that Uncle Vanya has loyally managed for him for years, he explodes like a cork in a medicine bottle: and he can’t even succeed at attempted murder.

Allam hits these marks with a wonderful ferocity that completely upturns the idea of Chekhovian rural indolence spreading everywhere and bathing the audience in a warm glow. The doctor, Astrov (Alexander Hanson), has been defeated by his work but still believes in saving the forests and stopping the ecological rot.

That’s one way in which Uncle Vanya still strikes us as a marvellously modern play, and Michael Frayn’s superb translation (which he prepared long ago for Michael Gambon’s Vanya) takes care of the humour, idiosyncrasy and humanity in the text.

Jeremy Herrin’s small-scale Chichester production, though, which marks the opening of the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary season, is curiously unexciting, certainly when compared to the current version starring Iain Glen and Charlotte Emmerson at the Print Room in Westbourne Grove.

Beyond Allam’s Vanya and Hanson’s swaggering but not sufficiently exhausted Astrov, the performance is efficient rather than revelatory. Timothy West’s professor is much more mild-mannered than he speaks, fussily referring to a notebook when revealing his cataclysmic plans, and Lara Pulver as Yelena is not really a young siren of sexual magnetism and languor; she’s more of a society salon beauty.

Similarly, whereas Charlotte Emmerson’s Sonya at the Print Room makes good-heartedness positively dynamic, Dervla Kirwan is content to sit still among the eddies and ebbing of the others. Maggie Steed is oddly fidgety as Vanya’s mother, while Anthony O’Donnell as Telegin and Maggie McCarthy as the old nurse fill in the gaps with a well-practised subservience. 

To 5 May (01243 781312)