One does not usually think of Uncle Vanya as an epic tale of the clash of dynasties and grand territorial ambitions. Indeed, there are only just enough parallels with the HBO television series Game of Thrones – in which two current Vanyas, Iain Glen at London’s Print Room and now Roger Allam at Chichester have appeared – to provide a sharp, bathetic contrast. And yet, the estate in the middle of nowhere is the only realm that Vanya knows, and he will not cede it without a fierce fight. And Chekhov’s small group of family and neighbours is as intricately and, in its way, passionately intertwined as George R.R. Martin’s more fantastical clans and septs.
Allam’s Vanya, like Glen’s, is a compulsive cynic, but this Sussex version is less languid than his London counterpart. Michael Frayn’s version of the text, as used here, is not as salty as Mike Poulton’s at the Print Room, but this is a Vanya whose little nips at his fellows’ ankles are always more likely to draw a drop of blood. And when cynicism is no longer a sufficient defence, he first shatters – tearing the petals off one of the roses he had intended to present to Yelena – then explodes, literally chasing Timothy West’s Serebryakov around the table before vainly taking a gun to him.
Elsewhere, though, Jeremy Herrin’s production provides a solid opening to this year’s Chichester season rather than a compelling one. Dervla Kirwan is conspicuously under-made-up as Sonya, in an attempt to justify the character’s descriptions of herself as plain, and Kirwan, like her London counterpart Charlotte Emmerson, is older than the character of Astrov on whom Sonya nurses a not-inappropriately girlish infatuation. Alexander Hanson’s Astrov is too light for the play and too broad in portrayal for even a large studio such as the Minerva; both he and Lara Pulver’s Yelena lack the magnetism to begin to explain why, even in such a rarefied milieu, other characters vie so ardently for their affections.
The most plausible performances come in the most incidental roles, from Maggie McCarthy as the family’s old nanny and Anthony O’Donnell as the impoverished hanger-on Telegin. Famously, at the end of the play nothing has changed; in this case, though, there does not even seem to have been all that much of a journey around and back to square one.