The air is lazy with the sound of midges and of distant, unfamiliar trains; sprigs of mimosa sprout through the floor of the central acting area; the hero appears, frowsty and rumpled from an after-lunch nap, and yawns widely like someone making a bolshie declaration of intent. From the opening garden scene, Katie Mitchell's new production of establishes a loving, detailed control of the elusive mood shifts and tragicomic tonalities of Chekhov's great plays. So it may seem churlish, given this and the dizzyingly top-flight cast, to carp about something as literal-minded as the perceived age of the performers in relation to that of their characters.
The question of age, though, is important in a play about a man of 47 who suddenly wakes up to the fact that he has wasted his life slogging to give financial support to an idol with feet of clay. It's a visit from the said idol, a pompous elderly professor accompanied by Yelena, his head-turning young wife, that causes the scales to fall from Vanya's eyes. Not that the wife feels youthful: there's a wonderful moment in the pent- up pre-storm scene when, half in deadpan rebuke, half in altruistic resignation, she tells her envious, testy spouse to "Be patient. In five or six years I'll be old too".
Resembling DH Lawrence with added sex appeal, Stephen Dillane brings some wonderful qualities to the title role. He's a Vanya who has to voice his own sound effect - "BANG!" - when his gun fails to go off as he tries to shoot the professor, and this comically desperate touch is very true to the character Dillane creates, who seems simultaneously to be smack inside his hapless predicament and to be outside it as a bitterly offhand, ironic commentator. At times, he reminds you of a bitchy, chain- smoking Simon Gray academic.
Mr Dillane captures the authentic Chekhovian note of being so depressed, it's funny. But he appears to be 47 going on 33: so, despite some terrific harrowed acting in the final scene, the full pitiable sense of a man who has missed the boat forever is missing. Anastasia Hille's Yelena, who is specified to be 20 years younger than Vanya, actually looks to be of an age with him, which upsets the intended imbalance. Ms Hille gives brilliant life to an arguably wrong-headed conception of the part. Instead of the bored beauty who drifts around and destroys men because they are challenged to rouse her from her torpor, she presents a pacing, agitated, hesitantly scrupulous and principled creature - Yelena as she sees herself. But that's another drawback of Mitchell's interpretation. Too many of the performances - one excludes Linus Roache's superb (if also over young) Astrov, the idealists turned drunken card, squiffily waggish and direct about his own inner desert - are like human equivalents of the Pompidou building, reserving insufficient secrets.
All the same, I urge you to see this production which creates an atmosphere of spellbinding intimacy, much helped by Paula Constable's wonderful lighting design. Katie Mitchell's growing greatness as director is palpable, even when you quarrel with her decision. And unlike Peter Hall's current Misanthrope, also problematic age-wise, this youthful is beautifully acted.Reuse content