Although promising new writer Sam Holcroft says her play is “inspired” by Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it strikes me as a forensic exploration of its themes and, altogether, a fine new version that doesn’t diminish or kowtow unduly to the original.
Natalie Abrahami’s production is similar to the kind of imaginative skimming of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy you often find in the Eastern European theatre, and it seems a genuinely fresh way of approaching the piece by focusing right down on the altercations in the play between Vanya and the doctor Astrov, Vanya’s niece Sonya and the sensual catalyst of emotional turmoil, the unseen professor’s new young wife Yelena.
This is not a translation, nor a new version, but a re-imagined, totally re-written distillation, with a wonderful sense of dead-at-night-despair, disastrous eavesdropping, sexual discussion of pheromones and evolution – Astrov tells Sonya that only a propensity for suicide distinguishes us from the animal world – and morphine injection.
In the most striking scene of all, Simon Wilson’s supercilious Astrov educates Susie Trayling’s limber, curiously lost Yelena (not at all Chekhov’s bird-brained heart-breaker) in the art of the needle, making her plunge a shot of harmless sulphate into his arm in an act of poisonous, impregnated two-way seduction.
This scene is shot almost in silhouette on a remarkable setting by Tom Scutt that resembles a huge revolving packing case. Sonya is dismantling the panels and timber as the play begins, reassembling them as it ends on her plea for carrying on despite everything.
Fiona Button finds much more than a moping drudge in Sonya; she’s an eternal optimist with the possibility of a better (or at least different) life visibly squeezed out of her in each encounter.
And though Robert Goodale’s Vanya won’t be compared with those of Michael Gambon or Stephen Dillane – the full texture of Vanya’s evaporating energies and hopes is lost in the concentration – the actor does convey the grisly, pointless ennui of it all, and the lighting and sound of Mark Howland and Carolyn Downing complete a memorable picture of an airless compartment in the train of thought and destiny.