Set on a crumbling country estate, Uncle Vanya is the tale of two obsessive love affairs that lead nowhere, and a flirtation that brings disaster. For the past 25 years, the irascible Vanya (Courtenay), aided by his niece Sonya (a delightful and energetic Kaye Wragg), has managed the estate on behalf of his relative, Professor Serebryakov (John Bennett). Now retired, the Professor and his beautiful young wife Yelena (Helen Schlesinger) come to visit. They throw the household into disarray, igniting hidden passions and old grudges, and family ties are tested further when the ageing and gout-ridden Professor announces his plans to sell the estate and live off the proceeds in the city. By turns comic, tragic, romantic and wistful Chekhov's play is an insightful study of unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love.
The Royal Exchange's production opens with a lone violinist who walks into the theatre's empty 'round' playing her instrument with haunting poignancy. Against the aural backdrop of her music, the scenery begins to appear, seemingly from nowhere, giving an indication of the magical quality of what's to come.
Not least the magical and uniformly brilliant performances. At the head of the cast, Courtenay is captivating, witty and heartbreaking whilst Robert Glenister's Astrov is also notable for his powerful and touching portrayal. As the play unfolds and these and all other characters reveal themselves, the audience is drawn inexorably in. These are people you know, and theirs are emotions you feel deeply.
Robert Jones' excellent design together with Hugh Vanstone's subtly changing lighting, Bruce O'Neil's aching music and the general in-the-round intimacy of the theatre add to the unmissable nature of this production.
In fact, it would be difficult to find fault with any aspect of Uncle Vanya, superbly directed by the Royal Exchange's artistic Gregory Hersov - perhaps only that it was over too soon. This is a fantastic start to the theatre's 25th anniversary season.
- reviewed by Val Bennion