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To see this modern-dress Uncle Vanya the night after the Royal Court’s period-dress Seagull is to feel neither that one is less right than the other nor that there’s too much Chekhov about. No: a week of successive Chekhov would be welcome if these stagings are to be so variously revealing, so directly affecting. And Chekhov himself makes us feel how many onion-layers of human existence coexist in this our life: the injured leg, the unrequited love, the seductive gleam of idle privilege, the restorative energy of work, the awful selfishness of people in deepest need…
This Vanya is given in the American playwright David Mamet’s version, which nicely balances period formality with modern colloquialisms such as “OK”. Skilfully cut, it runs, with one interval, at just over two hours. With no scenery to speak of, the world of Vanya’s country home is suggested by the use of chairs, body-language and Wilton’s Music Hall’s theatre’s own stairs and exits. It’s a London Vanya on 42nd Street.
Hugh Fraser, directing, establishes a climate in which each actor can bloom. The phrasing is classical, economical. Colin Stinton, a Mamet specialist, makes Vanya a burly, plodding, middle-aged Pooh Bear, both shrewd and self-absorbed, and finally callous in his insistence that the wretched Sonia cannot appreciate his degree of unhappiness.
As the languid Yelena, Rachel Stirling brings down the house with her casual utterance “I feel as if I’d just worked in the fields for two days” after a single interview with Astrov. Her voice is dark velvet, her model-like poise riveting, yet she can say “I’m a dull, second-rate character” with easy conviction. Catherine Cusack is a tense, youthful Sonia, anguished but lit up by hope, and Ronan Vibert brings to Astrov the disarming force of a man who knows himself the most natural and uninhibited person in the area. Philip Voss’s Serebryakov, with the unforgettable authority of his urbane vocal timbre, is the compelling household orator who’s also the most selfish person on the premises.
How these characters lay themselves more open than they ever seem aware! Watching, listening, we recognise the world, the hearts we know, and think: Yes, yes, yes.
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