After the raw, jangling yet cumulatively effective The Seagull at the Royal Court, Chekhov gets an even rougher treatment at the atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall near Whitechapel. The actors roll on to the stage in modern dress and let the play hang out untended by concentrated interpretation, unelaborated by meaningful design.
The version used is the stripped-down 1988 text by the American dramatist David Mamet used by Louis Malle for his 1996 film Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. Director Hugh Fraser – the actor best known as Captain Hastings in Poirot on television – ditches the surrounding contemporary New York rehearsal room script of Malle but retains the idea of casual informality behind the film.
That idea – not modern Chekhov so much as Chekhov done in cardigans, jeans and with guns as well as biros - results in a faux naiveté that doesn’t do justice to the emotional charge of the play, or to the highly wrought comic tragedy of Vanya’s wasted life, Sonya’s thwarted passion, or indeed the visionary fervour in a play that now seems to signal the end of progress. Environmental projects are swamped in climate change and the estate-owning professor wallows in whining self-importance.
The actors sidle on to the split-level stage among the music hall’s barley sugar columns, peeling walls, musty old curtain and tall ladder. A pile of junk and furniture is strewn around. Sonya, strikingly played by Catherine Cusack in a boyish haircut, jeans and trainers, invites Astrov – whom she has adored, without reciprocation, for six years – to stop drinking and have some food. But she doesn’t give him any food. When Vanya enters with his bunch of roses to find Yelena in a passionate clinch with Astrov, he simply gives an angry sort of grunt.
What is meant to be understated realism comes across as emotional carelessness. Both Vanya and Astrov are besotted with the 27 year-old Yelena, the professor’s new wife, for whom a heated argument produces an exhaustion she imagines to be akin to having worked for two days in the fields. Rachael Stirling, in high heels and a clingy black dress, never really explains why she loves the professor, or stays with him; but she does go against the grain of the production in her enraptured decision to do something about Sonya’s sadness and her own feelings for Astrov.
The trouble with the approach is that when the actors have to match the intensity of their characters’ feelings, they lack the build-up to justify the extremity of expression. So, Colin Stinton’s Vanya is reduced to a raging nincompoop, with stiff, scarecrow like hand expressions, when faced with the professor’s decision to sell up. Ronan Vibert’s Astrov is so laid back he is virtually horizontal, allowing his charisma, rather than his acting, to do the talking. Philip Voss’s professor, however, will not be daunted by the restrictive “liberation” of the play and works up a fine old frenzy.
The show is not without interest, and it is intriguing to see actors dressing down Chekhov in this way. But they are really selling him short, and the play never touches the heart, wrings the withers or churns the stomach. And it is puzzling that in a general disregard for the physical placement of the action, the sound effect of the rain is so insistently realistic.