Uncle Vanya at Hampstead Theatre
Chekhov’s tragicomedy finds a (largely Scottish-accented) Russian family worn down by the dictatorial presence of the professor who is as oppressive a presence as the stifling Russian summer. As that summer rolls on, tempers fray and tensions rise, particularly for titular Uncle Vanya (Alan Cox) who takes none too kindly to the presence of his brother-in-law over whom his mother fawns. Meanwhile, the professor’s much younger wife, Yeliena (Abbey Lee), becomes embroiled in a web of tangled affections.
What emerges is a play about what constitutes a life well lived, and the intense spotlight old age can put upon that question as well as the pressure it places on the young with their whole life still ahead of them. But, for the most part, it’s a witty and acerbically funny work about a family who don’t get on.
Cox’s Vanya provides much of the laughter, moving from drawling wit to lolling eyes and finally arriving at frenetic farce. He’s ably assisted by the brilliantly doddering and befuddled live-in man of God Telyeghin (David Shaw-Parker) and matronly Marina (June Watson), who is by turns bitingly dour and doting to the point of absurdity.
The tragedy comes from a variety of unfulfilled desires and, ultimately, Uncle Vanya’s existential crisis. He longs for an end to it all and while this is understandable in one sense – the costumes and set are absolutely-to-die-for – the “tragi” in this tragicomedy never quite lands. That’s largely because of the romantic relationships, which are just tough to believe.
It’s never quite clear whether Vanya loves Yeliena on a purely aesthetic level – lost in her green eyes – or an emotional one, as the only other character equally exhausted with the world and her place in it. Yeliena herself appears completely undecided in her own affections.
Maybe the true tragedy is in the fact that these people pine over the illusory. Their greatest, and only, hopes are for flimsy relationships built on nothing. That possibility holds a certain bleak intrigue but lacks the emotional weight to sustain the final acts once the comedy ebbs away.
The laughs are great, and Terry Johnson’s reworked script, along with a great cast, deserves huge credit for teasing them out. The only question that remains… What happens when the laughter stops?
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Uncle Vanya is at Hampstead Theatre from 30th November 2018 until 12th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.