Ira Gershwin was tuned into the traditional Western conception of Anton Chekhov when he pointed out in the song "But Not For Me", that any Russian play can guarantee clouds of grey.
So it’s much to the credit of adaptor Samuel Adamson and director Mark Rosenblatt that they never forget that Uncle Vanya is a comedy and the characters are mostly ridiculous people doing ridiculous things. Unfortunately they are inclined to make their points rather too heavy-handedly and first half laughs are worked for rather than achieved. The second half, sadder and truer, is also funnier.
In a typically Chekhovian opposition of city and country, Serebryakov, a celebrated scholar, has brought his young and glamorous second wife, Yelena, to the estate which has been run for him for years by Sonya, his plain and practical daughter by his first marriage, and her uncle Vanya. Serebryakov’s self-regard infuriates Vanya who, having previously revered the professor, now regards him as a man of no talent for whom he has wasted his own life. A third dedicated worker is the doctor and fervent environmentalist Astrov: like Vanya he is irresistibly drawn to Yelena while Sonya yearns for Astrov. Unhappiness stalks the estate.
Not much actually happens – the one moment of high drama ends up as a non-event – but Chekhov’s exploration of his characters’ motivations and frustrations is matched by his skill in examining themes such as the inevitability of change and the dislocation between entitlement and true worth. Rosenblatt’s production spells all this out very capably, but rather over-emphatically: too many whirling arms and odd body shapes, too many lines punctuated by explosive outbursts.
As a result the three key performances, Vanya (David Ganly), Astrov (Ryan Kiggell) and Sonya (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) achieve plenty of effective moments throughout, but really convince only in the beautifully played final scenes of farewells and returning to normal: funny, but also moving. Sonya’s costumes veer towards parody; I guess Myer-Bennett is a subtler player than this performance suggests. John Bett is an entertaining Serebryakov, but his striking of attitudes – appropriate enough to his self-regarding egotism – doesn’t always convince; nor does Georgina Rylance’s elegant and charming Yelena.
The updating – neat, not overstated – works well and helps to focus on the characters as people, not symbols of a class about to be swept away in 1917. Dick Bird’s designs feature rather insubstantial settings in front of a bleak wood of old telegraph poles: very effective, especially when half-seen characters move mysteriously between the poles. Ultimately Mark Rosenblatt convinces us that Uncle Vanya is a great (and very humane) play, but it takes rather a long time.
Uncle Vanya runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 21 March 2015