IF YOU PICTURE the main guys in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, you see the drifting Vanya with a fat face and the striving doctor, Astrov, with a thin one. Just as the professor's young wife, Yelena, has a pretty face, and the professor's daughter, Sonya, has a plain one. I must have picked up this fat-thin dichotomy from watching the movie with Michael Redgrave (fat face) and Laurence Olivier (thin face), or from the West End production with Michael Gambon (fat face) and Jonathan Pryce (thin face), or even from Chichester two years ago, with Derek Jacobi (fat face) and Trevor Eve (thin face). You know something's up with Katie Mitchell's wondrous new production of Uncle Vanya when you see that Linus Roache (Astrov) has a thin face and Stephen Dillane (Vanya) also has a thin face.
Not the same type of thinness, of course: if you were to take Roache and morph his whiskered leanness in another direction, his face could belong to an aristocrat in a Van Dyck portrait. If you were to morph Dillane, with his beard, hunched shoulders and eyes narrowing through a haze of smoke, he could be John Hurt in Midnight Express.
Skinny types have a habit of sticking together. When Roache tells Dillane despairingly that they used to be the only two decent, intelligent human beings in this particular Ukranian backwater, you think, sure, because neither of you were slobs. Yet, in a way, Vanya is a total slob, yawning, drinking and whingeing all day, while Astrov does some work, drinking and whingeing when he can. But that kind of sloth doesn't count. Both are wandering around this country estate, their metabolisms working overtime with disgust and dissatisfaction. They'd have to be mates. Roach and Dillane could almost be brothers. It's as if inside every Vanya, there's an Astrov struggling to get out. At the Young Vic, Vanya's lassitude has found a coiled life force of its own.
With this new version by David Lan, Katie Mitchell turned the characters inside out. Their inner lives are on the outside. The stage quivers with emotion. Soliloquies become soul-bearing arguments with the audience in-the-round. Dillane may be on the young side for a 47-year-old, and on the very young side for a 47-year-old in the 1890s, but in a poetic sense, it's right. That's how Vanya would see himself. Most uncles are nephews too.
The production hinges on these rewarding contradictions. We have as glamorous and gifted a young cast as you likely to see - Roach and Dillane appear in recent movies - who spend the evening assuring us that their lives are rotten, wasted, paltry affairs. Here is a four-act play that opens as slowly and surely as if it were a 400-page novel. We sink into it, confident that, in Mitchell's hands, we won't be cheated. She has a superb control of ensemble atmosphere and physical staging. The entrances and exits have a choreographed untidiness and open-endedness. When Roache tries to grab hold of Anastasia Hille's Yelena and kiss her, the mess of the protracted struggle and fumble has a balletic precision.
In the big set-pieces, there's so much happening between the characters you can only be grateful this isn't a movie, where editing and point-of- view are done for you: our eyes rake the room to catch each reaction. Malcolm Sinclair has a lovely veneer of self-approbation as the egotistical professor Serebryakov, dabbing his mouth with his neat hankie as he smoothly engineers his own ends. As Sonya, Jo McInnes's bright eyes fix every moment with enough sincerity to power Tony Blair. While McInnes conveys bustle better than any of her generation, folding her arms in front of her cardigan with daunting urgency, Anastasia Hille has no peers when it comes to hand-wringing, foot-tapping and neurotic cheek-twitching. Sonya and Yelena's relationship is a delight. As the hesitant, pock- marked Telegin, all the excellent Tom Bowles needs is "welcome" written across his chest and he would never be out of work as a doormat. This Vanya is sparely and moodily designed by Vicki Mortimer and boldly lit by Paule Constable. Work of the highest quality.
It's good to see Patrick Marber playing alongside Ben Elton in Shaftesbury Avenue only a couple of doors down from Alan Ayckbourn (the Huns are at the gates, Sir Alan). Marber's play, Closer, arrives in the West End with numerous disadvantages: rave reviews, several awards, acres of press coverage and some new starry names in the cast. There was always the fear that the tautness and directness of Marber's clever dialogue - which manages to be simultaneously elliptical and explicit - relied for its emotional punch on some extraordinarily rich acting. With the new cast, alas, everything has shrunk. Whereas Ciaran Hinds (the best thing about the original production) was a hulking, red-blooded figure, slow-moving and threatening, Neil Pearson is an attractive boulevard performer, who doesn't plumb the same sexual murkiness. Clive Owen's young writer had a radiant amoral insouciance, whereas Lloyd Owen has a more diligent earnestness. Sally Dexter had a sensual earthiness that contrasted wonderfully with Liza Walker's impish vulnerability: Frances Barber is more metropolitan and neutral. Liza Walker is still as good as ever. On the Lyric's proscenium stage, Marber's direction can be static and deliberate. The writing remains first-rate - incisive, funny and acute. And the Internet scene is a classic. But it's not quite what all the fuss was about.
The biggest insult that gets traded in Closer is when one of the women turns on Lloyd Owen and says "You ... writer!" (An upgrade on the ultimate insult in Waiting For Godot: "Crritic!") Further evidence about the unadvisability of living with writers comes with Brian Friel's new play Give Me Your Answer, Do! which premiered last year in Dublin. It shows there's a new anxiety in writers' lives. It's not just what the spouse, agent, publisher and critics think of your work. It's how much some American university is going to pay for your archive. In a former shooting lodge in Ireland a writer and his wife wait for news on the value of his archive while relations and friends come to lunch, have lunch and leave. There are three couples, each of whom who make us wonder why they ever married. Friel catches the marital tensions with a fierce humour and broad sympathy. Give Me Your Answer, Do! is not as good as Dancing at Lughnasa, but it's an absorbing and enjoyable play. And the cast - which includes Geraldine James as the gin-drinking wife, Niall Buggy as the dithery novelist, Gawn Grainger as his vulgar rival and John Woodvine as an ex-cocktail pianist and kleptomaniac, are on top form.
'Vanya': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), to 2 May. 'Closer': Lyric, W1 (0171 494 5045), to 6 Jun. 'Give Me Your Answer, Do!': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to 9 May.
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