It's a great shock in Lindsay Posner's revival when Anna Friel starts yawning during Samuel West's impassioned speech about the decimation of the countryside. Admittedly, West eventually admits that he's boring her. But isn't this a misunderstanding on his part?
For if the beautiful Yelena, married disastrously to a bad-tempered old professor, is not falling cataclysmically in love with the ideologically prophetic doctor in this scene, then the rest of the play falls apart.
It doesn't quite do that, but there is a tendency at the Vaudeville to read Christopher Hampton's superb, sardonic translation (not heard on the London stage since he made it for Paul Scofield at the Royal Court in 1970) at face value. In Chekhov, as in life, people quite often mean the opposite of what they are saying.
Scofield and Michael Gambon were both Vanya's age, 47, when they played him. Ken Stott's rumpled estate manager, who looks as though he's slept upside down in a bale of straw for a week, owns up to 53, which is fair enough, as Friel's Yelena is a little older than written.
But then the professor, testily done by Paul Freeman, doesn't really look old enough to be his wife's grandfather. And that admirable actress Anna Carteret makes no headway at all with Vanya's mother (so memorably played at the Print Room this year by Caroline Blakiston as an eccentric imperial remnant).
All of this matters in Chekhov, where the history of these characters is reaching a precise moment of realisation; in Vanya's case, that he's wasted his life slaving for a man he doesn't respect. The comic tragedy of Vanya - he tries to kill the same man twice and misses twice - is robustly staged, Freeman cowering like a stuck pig, Stott rampaging like an inflamed bull, Mr Punch on the loose.
It certainly looks like Chekhov, or Chekhov as we expect to see him, though Christopher Oram's elaborate delineation of each separate location makes for a cramped stage and awkward groupings. It's ludicrous, for instance, that the professor simply brushes past Mark Hadfield's deferential Waffles without shaking his proffered hand.
If Stott's Vanya is a cornered bear who doesn't really break your heart, even when he turns up with that mis-timed bunch of autumn roses, West's Astrov is more radically unexpected - vain, finical, somewhat prissy - and that doesn't work, either. As so often in English Chekhov, tiredness of spirit seems unrelated to sheer physical exhaustion.
The still, sad centre of the play is best conveyed by June Watson as the old nurse, carrying a world of sighs, storms, dark nights and clucking chickens with every move and inflection. Otherwise, Friel does the stock dreamy thing of sitting on a tall, swaying swing, though she does sharply reveal Yelena's innate goodness in her scene with Laura Carmichael's brisk and well-scrubbed Sonya.
Sonya's final consoling speech of carrying on regardless until we find peace and rest was spoilt on the first night by some semi-conscious heckling in the bosom of the stalls, but in an odd way that provided a previously lacking bolt of ensemble concentration on the stage; and reminded us that this was live theatre after all.
- Michael Coveney
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