REVIEW: ‘Uncle Vanya’, Theatre Royal Bath

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‘Uncle Vanya’, Theatre Royal Bath

Rupert Everett makes his directorial debut in Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, ‘Uncle Vanya’, in a new version commissioned by Theatre Royal Bath, adapted by David Hare.

At the close of the nineteenth century, in the heart of the Russian countryside, a household bemoans its tedious existence. 

Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain the estate of Vanya’s brother-in-law, a retired university professor. When the professor arrives with his young and beautiful wife, the natural order of the household is thrown into disarray.

The arrival and continued presence of the Professor and Yelena bring with it chaos where there was peace, disunity where there was unity, discord, disharmony, which in turn generates disorganisation, and a state of disillusion. The daily routine of the household is disrupted, which puts Vanya off his work. As a result, the house becomes home to inactivity and boredom. A melancholy disrupts the beauty of the setting, the poetry of the language, and the talk of reason, creativity, imagination, freedom and hope. 

In a clever move, unlike in Chekhov’s original, the entirety of the play here takes place in the estate’s garden, fitting for a piece so rich in natural imagery. 

In this rural setting so full of growth and life, so seemingly peaceful and harmonious, there is an unusual calmness, quietness, a stillness a stagnation, punctuated by the emotion and dialogue of characters, by their excitement, their happiness, their intense boredom, and their lamentation.

The set is gifted a natural beauty that is maintained throughout, ironic given that the topic of conversation frequently turns to the destruction of forests. As the entire natural world is being uprooted around them, as the forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, and the earth is becoming poorer and uglier every day, their garden, their world, is preserved.

The ‘walls’ of the set, here representing the boundaries of the garden, are cloaked with ivy, a shaded camouflage encompassing our characters. With colourful wisteria cascading from above, the characters are vividly reminded of the natural beauty that mankind is destroying. Simultaneously, nature here is an ornament, one of the earth, that aim to teach these characters something of the beauty of the world, hoping to inspire in them an appreciation, understanding and respect for the natural world.

Sonya once claims that she will die only when her life reaches its natural end. There is an irony in this, given that this is a luxury not afforded to nature itself – a thing man cannot create, yet seems intent of destroying.

With increasing concerns over climate change today, particularly powerful is the moment when the Doctor shows Yelena three map of the same area, covering three different time periods, and each time there is a significant decline in the number of trees, a man-made destruction of the natural world, of beauty.

Frequently, natural metaphor is used to replace the literal human. Despite her idleness and apparent indifference to the destruction of the forests, Yelena astutely realises that mankind is “possessed by a devil of destruction”, “mindlessly destroying forests… In the same way you mindlessly destroy a man”, the destructive imagery now applied to a humanity that is destroying itself.

An approaching storm threatens to bring about a climatic disruption, which culminates in a thunderous uprooting of this household as the Professor, along with Yelena, and the Doctor, take their leave at the end of the play. By means of the set design and the incredibly lifelike backdrop, depicting natural landscapes, an intense atmosphere is established, and one can almost feel the rising humidity, and the increasing heat as this small group of people are stifled by a physical proximity – despite the house’s 26 rooms – and a lack of things to do, which naturally results in a brewing tension.

Despite moments of tragedy, the play is very comical, its timed pauses and dry responses perfectly executed, Everett in particular showing a mastery of the humour. As both director and lead in this production, Everett is magnificent. As grouch and pessimist Vanya, Everett presents us with a man facing an impossible struggle for existence, lamenting his life, fearing he has wasted his best years. This generates an intense anger, a rage that he takes out on the Professor, for whom he has worked for many years, without receiving anything himself. He is therefore in a state of disillusionment, pronouncing himself as a “progressively deluded” man “living a life of illusion”, his real life having been found wanting.

As director, Everett has taken this monumental play and shaped it into a two hour evocative exploration of creation and destruction, of both the natural and the human world. 

Katherine Parkinson is a joy as Sonya, with an adorable awkwardness when in the presence of the Doctor, whom she loves. Her love, however, is unrequited. Sometimes hesitant, in the moments she is alone on stage, with only the audience to hear her, she will begin speaking and then trail off, as though rehearsing what to say to him, or doubting herself. When telling Yelena of her love, she becomes girlish and giggly, her eyes bright, full of love, hope and happiness. The only character we really see working, Sonya continues to strive to manage the estate, doing so single-handedly now, her character possessed of a dignity that compels her to persevere. 

It is Sonya who delivers the closing lines of the play, and Parkinson performs this with a believability and a moving strength of conviction, as she moves beside her Uncle, looking out, inspiring him to do the same. She reassures him that they will live, and find peace. Sonya has a confidence, a faith, evident in her repetition and emphasis, that they will not give up. They will carry on, they will endure. The play’s ending is not resolute, but with this uncertainty, there is a hope.

John Light is a passionate Mikhail, a Doctor whose focus – quite possibly his purpose, as he sees it – is the preservation of the forests, which will ensure the happiness of future generations “one hundred years from now”. Fond of a drink, believing this to attribute him with abilities of an almost ‘superhuman’ quality, feeling capable of anything. When we learn that a patient died on his operating table, we assume that he was drunk when operating. Perhaps, then, the Doctor finds a sense of necessary fulfillment in striving to preserve natural life now, to ensure the health and happiness of human life later.

The charming Clemence Poesy is subtly seductive as the Professor’s young and beautiful wife Yelena, the object of several men’s desire. She glides gracefully around the garden with a light and airy passivity befitting of the idle character, one whom, as claimed by Dr Mikhail, does nothing except eat, sleep, and bewitch others with her beauty. The Doctor is excited by her beauty, however, and it is not long before he is declaring his love for her. Vanya, a rival for her affections, regrets not asking for her hand ten years earlier, confident that they would have had a happy life together.  

Failing to settle on a solid happy ending, with a sense of ongoing continuation heavy, ‘Uncle Vanya’ is a vision of the happiness of the human race, this production acting as a mirage, holding up such happiness as something to aspire to, but something that cannot be achieved in the present, and that the best we can hope for is to plant something that will ensure the happiness of future generations. 

‘Uncle Vanya’ is a beautifully balanced production combining humour, hope and happiness with boredom, sadness and despair, finely juxtaposing the desire to give up, with the resolve to carry on.

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