The Print Room has rapidly established itself as an essential fringe venue in an atmospheric converted warehouse in Westbourne Grove, and its first classic, Uncle Vanya, thrives on a “one-room” intimacy; Lucy Bailey’s production is the best close-up Chekhov since Katie Mitchell’s version of the same play at the Young Vic.
What’s often lost among all the lassitude and grumpiness is the rawness of Chekhov’s characters: the uneasiness of the patronising professor in the countryside; the awkwardness of Yelena, his young wife, with her enslaved new step-daughter, Sonya; the thwarted sexuality and overwhelming exhaustion of Vanya himself.
Staged “in the square” -- as in a more spacious Orange Tree, perhaps -- there’s no escaping the scrawny fleshiness of Iain Glen’s magnificently intemperate Vanya, just as there’s no escape for him. And William Houston’s physically overpowering Astrov, looming like a big brown bear from one of his own threatened forests, is just as vivid a creature.
Astrov confronts the “tree problem” with an urge to conserve, while Vanya, says Yelena, is congenitally destructive. In the midst of this uneasiness, exacerbated by Yelena’s languorous beauty, Vanya’s mother (Caroline Blakiston) sits around like a bejewelled aristocratic remnant, old “Waffles” (David Shaw-Parker) strums a guitar and tries to keep the peace, while the professor (David Yelland), a tetchily hilarious hypochondriac with no social skills, upsets everyone.
The eddies and rhythms in their banter between meals and bed-time are much funnier than usual in Mike Poulton’s revised “version” of a script he first prepared at Chichester in 1996, though it’s a bit odd to hear Astrov declare to Yelena: “Here I am, on a plate, eat me.”
Designer William Dudley rings the scene changes with furnishing and decorative panels in the wooden doorways, and the surrounding white-washed walls are covered with family photographs. Sound designer Gregory Clarke provides splendid cacophonous effects of bells, thunder, country noises and dogs barking; at one point, I thought I heard Blakiston cry, “Petersburg!”
The result is a beguiling, fresh and energetic Chekhov, with Lucinda Millward less impervious than usual to Astrov’s magnetic charms, and Charlotte Emmerson’s wonderful Sonya keeping the show on the road with her big heart, scrubbed beauty and innate goodness.
My abiding memory, though, will be of two great, growling performances from Glen and Houston, a couple of top notch, hairy actors who don’t mess around and who play Chekhov vigorously and superbly, without kid gloves. The evening’s a tear-stained delight.