The play centres on the visit of an old professor, Aleksander, and his younger, beautiful second wife, Yelena (played by Anna Friel), to their rural estate.
Vanya (played by Ken Stott) is a friend of the professor’s late first wife who has long managed the estate; both he and the local doctor, Astrov (played by Samuel West), fall for Yelena, while Sonya, the professor’s niece (played by Downton Abbey's Laura Carmichael), suffers unrequited love for the doctor.
Directed by Lindsay Posner, Uncle Vanya runs at the Vaudeville theatre until 16 February 2013. The press night made headlines for a controversial incident whereby veteran Peter Hall was heard to voice criticisms of the production during the final scene - but what did the overnight critics make of it?
It certainly looks like Chekhov, or Chekhov as we expect to see him, though Christopher Oram's elaborate delineation of each separate location makes for a cramped stage and awkward groupings... If Stott's Vanya is a cornered bear who doesn't really break your heart, even when he turns up with that mis-timed bunch of autumn roses, West's Astrov is more radically unexpected - vain, finical, somewhat prissy - and that doesn't work, either... The still, sad centre of the play is best conveyed by June Watson as the old nurse, carrying a world of sighs, storms, dark nights and clucking chickens with every move and inflection.
Lindsay Posner’s interpretation has the most starry cast of any of them. But it doesn’t have enough passion or intensity... It is a role for which Anna Friel seems to be just right: her Yelena is poised, looking fragile and conducting herself with a seductive indolence... Samuel West’s Astrov, a dapper and hard-working doctor, is certainly under her spell. West nicely conveys Astrov’s complexity... Still, for all the strength of the acting, this is a slow-moving Uncle Vanya. The relationships between the characters don’t feel fully developed…We sense their inner dramas, but not the aching density of their interactions. The production is polished yet neither deeply affecting nor all that funny, lacking the rhythm, tonal confidence and textural richness of a truly great account of Chekhov.
…the production, boasting a handful of fine performances, left me intermittently moved rather than profoundly stirred… On the plus side there is Christopher Hampton's version which is limpid, faithful, sharp and which reminds us that Chekhov's characters are forced to confront the painful reality of their existence … Stott hits two basic notes: rasping anger and tearful self-pity but there is little modulation and not much sense of life's potential… Stott isn't helped by Posner's production which, during the great scene when Vanya hears the professor's proposal to sell the estate, keeps him rooted to the spot rather than prowling the stage in incoherent desperation…in the end this is a production that presents the play clearly without shedding much new light on it or achieving the molten intimacy of the best Chekhov productions… solidly capable rather than genuinely inspiring.
The scene changes in Lindsay Posner’s production are lengthy and largely unnecessary as the rooms all look much the same and on the first night some of the actors occasionally seemed strained and jumpy, as if they hadn’t quite bedded into their roles... You can see why his Vanya is so smitten by Yelena, who is exceptionally alluring in Anna Friel’s performance, But the actress doesn’t coast on her considerable beauty here, but subtly suggest a woman who knows deep down that she is second rate, and cowardly when it comes to emotional intimacy... Samuel West captures both the ecological idealism of Dr Astrov, whose concerns about deforestation seem almost spookily prophetic while also bringing a compelling coldness to the role. And Laura Carmichael is deeply touching as Vanya’s plain niece Sonya.
It is bad luck that Lindsay Posner’s production follows two smaller five-star Vanyas this year (Chichester and the Print Room)... Friel gives Yelena a rounded reality... She can be silently funny too: that politely bored expression as the doctor unrolls his eco-maps is priceless. Carmichael’s Sonya is fine too, competence and pathos combining into loving stoicism, and June Watson warm and sharp as the old nanny... West’s Astrov is vigorous and interesting, a convincingly disruptive male force in the listless household, and Stott’s choleric and frustrated Vanya takes a while but grows on you. When he explodes into life after the Professor’s outrageous proposal to sell off the estate for “interest-bearing securities”, his hunched ungainly misery seems to channel Tony Hancock... it is period-faithful with slow-moving scene changes.
Come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing to Uncle Vanya on Wednesday 28 November 2012 and get your top-price ticket, a FREE poster and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast - plus 25 signed programmes for early bookers - all for just £37.50!