In a droll introduction to his new translation of Uncle Vanya, Mike Poulton describes the play as being about three men, who feel old and worn out and think there is no point to their lives, and two unhappy women. And so it is. Precious little happens. The men grumble and rage, the women yearn and suffer, and nearly everyone feels sorry for themselves. Yet even as they are comic, ridiculous, pathetic, these characters are also touching, believable and all-too recognisable. Catch yourself griping on the way home and you’ll know how honest Chekhov was. This sympathetic exasperation with his characters comes across brilliantly in Poulton’s salty, witty translation. It also characterises Lucy Bailey’s moving, physically vivid production, which deftly deepens with the play into a painful examination of frustrated hopes.
Bailey makes the most of the intimacy of her venue: here we are in the same world as the characters. William Dudley’s simple set is evocative but not too pretty. This is a working country estate. And Bailey seats the audience on four sides, so that we are closeted with the characters and feel their frustration and claustrophobia. When they soliloquise, we seem to be listening in on their thoughts, and when Vanya and Astrov burst into wild, drunken dancing they nearly land on top of the people in the front row.
In these close quarters, the actors make you feel the agony and absurdity of their characters physically. The show hums with trapped energy. Iain Glen’s volatile Vanya prowls the set like a caged tiger. You can see the traces of the young man who devoted himself to running his brother-in-law’s estate, in the belief that that brother-in-law was a great professor. But you also see how, realising that he has wasted 25 years, Vanya seethes with corroded energy and bitter disappointment. He is matched by William Houston’s vigorous Astrov, a great bear of a country doctor who spends his life mired in poverty and disease yet clings to a rusting belief in the potential of human beings. The arrival of the professor and his unhappy young wife, Yelena, drives both men into a frenzy of desire, resentment and despair.
There is a lovely performance from Charlotte Emmerson as Sonya, Vanya’s hard-working niece, while David Shaw-Parker is very funny as the bumbling Telegin and David Yelland is a splendid pompous windbag as the professor. It’s vigorous, raw and humane: great Chekhov.