Chekhov is being put through the mixer on the London stage at the moment. While Benedict Andrews’ exhilaratingly unorthodox Three Sisters continues at the Young Vic, Uncle Vanya takes to the stage in Greenwich in a stripped-down, fired-up form, as Los Angeles company Theatre Movement Bazaar begin a short English tour.
Tina Kronis and Richard Alger, co-creators of Anton’s Uncles, despatch the female characters from Chekhov’s original and focus on the men: Vanya, Astrov, Waffles (Telegin) and the Professor. Here the four inhabit an almost Beckettian landscape; marooned on stage with just a few chairs, a bottle of vodka and a samovar, they fret about their looks, bemoan their fate and wrestle with their unfulfilled longings. They also dance, sing, fight and strike attitudes as they fumble with the question of what life is for and what it means to be a man.
It’s light-hearted, surreal, and often absurd, but the piece conveys the poignancy, boxed-in energy and raging despair of the original. Audiences familiar with Chekhov’s plot will probably get on best with it, though it keeps the basic narrative, as the arrival of the pompous professor (Derrick Oshana) and his beautiful young wife Helena throws the men into disarray, making each of them, in different ways, take stock.
Separated from the realistic setting of the country estate, the play emerges as an intensely honest exploration of mid-life crisis. Mark Skeens’ vivid, sardonic Vanya alternates between writhing in pain, fizzing with rage or sinking into gloomy torpor as he bewails the lost years and the futility of his existence. Jaxcon L. Ryan’s Astrov explodes into sudden outbursts of activity, but seems unable to summon up enough will power to leave the stage. Ernesto Cayabyab’s Waffles poignantly maintains that he is happy, even as he recounts the desolate story of his failed marriage. Every now and then the beautiful, unattainable Helena wafts through their midst, evoked here simply by slinky music and a space on stage that the men gaze at longingly.
You do miss the female characters, particularly Sonya, and this distilled version can’t deliver the full range, depth and subtlety of Chekhov’s play. But it certainly picks up the spirit of the original and runs with it. It is a wild, comic, poignant piece of theatre that ends, movingly, as, storm over, the men sit down at a table and resume work.