If a bomb had dropped on the opening night of Peter Hall's rewarding revival of Uncle Vanya, it would have wiped out a high percentage of Britain's theatrical bigwigs. These luminaries had descended in droves on his beautifully acted production, because it inaugurates a brand new theatre, the Rose of Kingston.
Having founded the RSC in the Sixties, masterminded the National Theatre's move to the South Bank in the Seventies, and instituted his own repertory company at the Old Vic in the Nineties, the indefatigable Hall is once again in pioneering mode. Thanks to his vision, name and clout, Kingston now has a theatre that takes as its model and namesake the Elizabethan Rose Theatre (on whose original plan it is based), replete with a lozenge-shaped stage, a horseshoe auditorium of three tiers and a pit between the official seating and the stage, where punters can sit on cushions (at £7 a go) and watch the action like sedentary versions of the promenading groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe. It has a capacity of 900 people and, as a tour for journalists demonstrated, it is remarkable how it flings its embrace round the farthest-flung seat.
The choice of Chekhov's great tragicomedy of disillusionment as the inaugural show illustrates some of the tensions that are integral to this noble venture. The aim is for the Rose to become a vibrant producing house, not a theatre like the one in Richmond that receives shows that are on tour or en route to the West End.
But the goal of creating a resident company that would fill the schedules and be a resource for drama students at Kingston University (who could get hands-on training and be recruited, if good enough, to the ranks) is in temporary abeyance owing to lack of money. The construction cost a highly economical £11m and will need, by Hall's reckoning, £600,000 a year to run. It's not clear, as yet, how that funding will be achieved.
Uncle Vanya is, in some ways, an odd choice for the Rose's maiden voyage. You might have expected a drama from the Elizabethan repertory that played at the original theatre. You might have thought that such a piece would have shown off the potential of this particular acting space to better advantage than a play that was designed for a proscenium arch theatre. The stage of the Rose is wide and relatively shallow, with no capacity for flying in scenery and no real wings.
But the choice has a certain symbolic rightness, because Hall has just handed over the reins to Stephen Unwin, who now steps down from his 15-year artistic directorship of English Touring Theatre, the originator of this very touring version of Vanya.
And it's heartening to see how well Hall has made Chekhov work in these conditions. Clever distribution of the minimal props and furniture contributes to a sense of wide, but not over-stretched, focus. One sometimes forgets that Uncle Vanya (like The Seagull) contains soliloquies addressed directly to the audience, and you won't be surprised to hear that these feel very natural and poignant-comic coming from such a non-naturalistic Elizabethan stage.
Nicholas le Prevost is excellent, bristling and bridling with a lovely, half-ludicrously aggrieved incredulity as a Vanya who is hopping mad with Ronald Pickup's Professor, a man resembling a pair of twisted scissors and much given to paroxysms of peevishness. The cast has strength in depth, with Neil Pearson effecting a skilful balance between moral dishevelment and eco-idealism as the doctor Astrov (though neither he nor Vanya ever seem drunk enough), and Michelle Dockery and Loo Brealey exuding, respectively, seductive boredom and eager-to-please clumsiness (curiously reminiscent of Joan Fontaine as the second wife in Hitchcock's Rebecca) in the roles of Yelena and Sonya. It's an evening that generates a strong feeling of goodwill towards the company and the heady, incipient adventure of the Rose Theatre.
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