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Review: Uncle Vanya (Home, Manchester)

Walter Meierjohann stages a conflicted version of Chekhov's masterpiece

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Harvey Weinstein gets around. He's certainly found his way, invited or otherwise, into Walter Meierjohann's off-kilter revival of Uncle Vanya in Manchester. Rehearsed in the shadow of the ongoing sexual harassment scandal, his production has turned into a question of consent.

Unrequited love has rarely looked so unappealing. Rather than fawning over Yelena from afar, mooning ineffectively and wallowing in self-pity, Nicholas Holder's Vanya won't take a hint. He lavishes unwanted attention on his brother-in-law's wife, craning over her like a rotund lothario, even at one point lurching in for a snog. His friend Astrov's worse, mind, and Jason Merrells moves on her like a mousetrap, pinning the door shut and pressing on past her protests.

It sometimes seems as if Hara Yannas's Yelena, elegant in a loose scarlet jumpsuit, spends the whole play wheeling away from such unsolicited advances. Not that she's immune from a few of her own – an impulsive snog with her daughter-in-law Sonia (Katie West), for example, or restorative fellatio for her gout-ridden husband (David Fleeshman).

In isolation, that raises an intriguing set of questions, and it's curious to see who gets away with what. While the beautiful and the eligible have their wicked way, the play's betas, its sadsacks, emerge unloved and inappropriate. Trouble is, it rather scuppers Chekhov's central theme – the tragedy of inaction. Vanya, here, is anything but. He goes after what he wants and just doesn't get it. It may be that these men deserve none of our sympathy (and you have to admire Meierjohann for tackling the question head-on), but without it, what's left for poor old Uncle Vanya? Not emotion, for sure. This is as numb as a long Russian winter.

It feels like this strand of thinking came late. Andrew Upton's blunt adaptation, seen in Sydney and New York with Cate Blanchett in the cast, turns Chekhov's characters into deadbeat countryside clowns and stresses the ways that life – and work – grind us down. Steffi Wurster's box set is all wear-and-tear, with wallpaper peeling and damp seeping through. A collection of hard, uncomfortable chairs – the sort that do backs and bums in over time – suggest the ache of inactivity (though the landowning professor plumps himself into an armchair). No wonder, as Yelena softly explains, that it's "hard to stay pure and sober by the time you reach 40". Mike Gunning's pallid lighting sucks the life out of them all.

Outside, a tree has lost all its leaves, and inside, a mechanical piano plays by itself – a symbol of the coming automated insurrection, perhaps. In fact, there's a striking lack of work going on. Lethargy's set in and productivity's plummeted. Holder's Vanya begins as a considerate soul, selecting his words with a careful precision, ends up ambling around. His size holds him back, but life weighs him down, just as it does West's scurrying Sonia, who slows to something approaching catatonia as Merrells' caddish Astrov ignores her. Even so she struggles to make an impression: too plain by half. It leaves the play woefully unbalanced.

Neither exploding its themes, nor playing it straight, Meierjohann sits it onstage, aware of its audience, and brings its subtext to the surface: this Vanya's intentions are all too clear - and all too conflicted.

Uncle Vanya runs at Home, Manchester until 25 November.