The best news about the Rose in Kingston is that it really does work as a welcoming and agreeable theatre. You could not say that Peter Hall’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya - in Stephen Mulrine’s 1999 translation for English Touring Theatre, which inaugurates the new theatre before embarking on a nationwide tour - will go down as one of the greatest in history; but it is a serviceable, unfussy account, fleetly played.
The simplicity of the Rose means that the play must stand on its own two feet. There is nowhere to store or fly scenery. The house is arranged on three levels hugging the wide, epic stage, which is now cunningly tilted in a rake, with “groundlings” seated on cushions on the floor.
Designer Alison Chitty, who has finished the theatre in discreet blue and white to complement the new wood everywhere, places a single glowing tree centre stage and gives the actors a battery of chairs to sit and loll on, and move gingerly between. Three cheers for those chairs, which must number almost as many as you sometimes find in a Trevor Nunn production.
The acting is as discreet as the furnishing. Ronald Pickup is a modestly inflected Serebryakov, not at all the vainglorious academic grandee, while Michelle Dockery’s Yelena, his new young wife, is more sweet than soignée. The central tragedy of Vanya being stranded on the rocks of his own existence, his sense of having been taken advantage of, does not really figure with Nicholas Le Prevost. He is dry, wry and full of a certain residual bitterness, but the great welling in his heart is always under control.
His friend and rival, the visionary doctor Astrov, is played with a modicum of panache by Neil Pearson, but again, you never feel he’s breaking Sonya’s heart with his diffidence. Sonya herself is played by Loo Brealey as a contented doormat. The final heart-breaking moments, as Sonya comforts Vanya over his books and promises some joy and rest in the next world, form merely a comforting coda to disappointment.
The show does have the clear, simple line of the best of Stephen Unwin’s ETT productions, and it will be interesting to see how Unwin, once he gets going as Hall’s successor as artistic director at the Rose, brings that trademark clarity to bear on the new space.
In the meantime, this Vanya is more of an advertisement of good intentions than a mission statement. Good, though, to see such estimable veterans as Faith Brook and Antonia Pemberton showing up well as, respectively, the professor’s widowed mother-in-law and the old nurse.
- Michael Coveney (reviewed at the Rose Theatre, Kingston)