All the characters in Chekhov’s play are somehow alienated from their own existence, standing outside of themselves. The one exception in Helena Kaut-Howson’s production, which manages to be brittle and enervating at the same time, is Tricia Kelly’s old nurse, who has anyway sublimated her own desires in concern for others.
I can’t imagine a better space in London for Chekhov than the new Arcola: its height, intimacy and authentic atmosphere provide the perfect arena, and Kaut-Howson and her designer Sophie Jump have filled it with slender birch trees, evocative old furniture, sudden bursts of hurdy-gurdy music and distant industrial noise (music by Boleslaw Rawski, sound by Paul Bull).
But Kaut-Howson – who has provided a new version, in cooperation with her older-than-usual Vanya (he claims to be 53, not 47), Jon Strickland – doesn’t allow us to wallow. The lighting by Alex Wardle is beautiful but arbitrary, not moody.
Strickland is not a sad old moose booing with frustration but a comic buffoon, firing at the professor (an immensely imposing Geoffrey Whitehead) with a pop gun, sitting with Yelena’s shoe on his head in the drunk scene.
Yelena, too beautiful to move, is a frieze-like sculpture in Marianne Oldham’s bewitching and habitually flirtatious performance, caught in a fantasy embrace by Vanya and literally stretched out with boredom in a cascade of auburn hair.
Doing Sonya (Hara Yanas) a favour by mentioning her name to Astrov (Simon Gregor), she finds herself swamped by desire – his and hers. But like Telegin (Paul Bigley) – who has retained his dignity but lost his love and his family – she is resigned to a life of disappointment. Everyone is.
This may not be the funniest, or the most heartbreaking of Uncle Vanyas, but it does remind you how lucky you are if you can get up in the morning without wanting to kill yourself.