Theatre in Wales

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Consummate Chekhov

Uncle Vanya

Theatr Clwyd & Sheffield Theatres , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd , September-27-17
Uncle Vanya by Theatr Clwyd & Sheffield Theatres No characters in fiction are quite like those in “Uncle Vanya”. They are actors in their own time and place, a country estate far from anywhere in the Russia of the Tsars, but possessed of a sense of location in the greater stream of time. They muse on how the aeons to come will look back on them. The conflation of presentness and eternity is expressed artfully in the design of Lucy Osborne. A giant gilded frame overhangs the performance space. Within it undulate the branches and needles of a equally oversize silver birch. Human artifice, time-defined and time-delimited, is juxtaposed with ever recursive and self-renewing nature.

Each piece of theatre occupies its own place and time. Far from being ephemeral it is eternally new. As with nature each production ends which makes each next perennially fresh. No play outside Shakespeare courses through the history of Britain's theatre in a way to equal “Uncle Vanya”. Thanks to the makers of the Theatricalia website they are all there on record: Olivier, Courtenay, Gambon, the list runs and runs. Its resources tell me that when I saw Peter O'Toole as Vanya his Sonya was a young Penelope Wilton. The most recent “Uncle Vanya” was that of Robert Icke in 2016. But Theatr Clwyd's co-production with Sheffield occupies a particular place in time. The centenary of the eclipse of Russia's brief parliamentary interim occurs this season. It is a lens of awareness that inserts itself in the watching of a production of 2017.

History is ripe in ironies. One of those is that the victors of 1945 are so ill at ease in their historical skin. The handshakes that took place on the shores of the Elbe have a haunting predictiveness seventy years on. Russia and Britain are mirror images of one another in their loss of a unified sense of where they belong. The Serebryakovs end the play with their departure for Kharkov. In Cardiff the centenary of the brief artistic efflorescence of the first period is being memorialised in the Millennium Centre. In Kharkov there is to be no official memory. History is just too difficult to embrace.

The costume design in Tamara Harvey's production brilliantly realises the fissure of an 1890s Russia that is half-toying with modernity. Martin Turner's Serebryakov comes not in the conventional dark colours of an academic but is dressed in dandyish finery. The blue of the long skirt of Shanaya Rafaat's Elena comes straight from a Mary Cassatt pastel. At the Almeida in 2016 Vanya was a buttoned-up exercise in anger. Here Jamie Ballard is a richly spread figure in part-rustic costume. He has the acuteness of insight to recognise the emptiness of his brother-in-law's scholarly work but he is an infinity away from Telyegin. Telyegin's role is not large but his part in Chekhov's supremely subtle pattern has an absolute clarity here. Brendan Charleson is old Russia dressed in the clothing of ages past and seeped in the values of Orthodoxy. When he observes the rancour between the family members his reaction is a fine pain.

A conventional staging of Chekhov has the audience looking at a world of pine, forest and melancholy. Icke constructed a whole room that rotated for an audience of outside observers. This production opts to do Chekhov in the round which gives it an unusual quality of immediacy and proximity. The scenes between Elena and Rosie Sheehy's Sonya with their rapid switches and lability of emotion are an acting and directorial highlight. This is Rosie Sheehy's first appearance on this site. Two years out of college she is not just a significant talent but proof, if proof were ever needed, that the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre has been a crucible of theatre talent that has no equal anywhere on earth.

To say that Peter Gill knows Chekhov is an understatement. An adaptation for the Royal Court goes back fifty years and the drama of Russia has coursed in and out of the career. He is the best of adapters in that his presence is utterly invisible. The characters are of their era but their language has neither the doughiness of period nor any jarring over-modernity. In short it is language that serves the play and never draws attention to itself. Serebryakov damns himself in the directest of terms. He asserts “a right to an old man's egoism.”

Oliver Dimsdale reaches deep into the complexity but also the alienation of Astrov. He is the intellectual with no peers in his rural solitude. But he has also an emotional carapace of some hardness. Mariya's presence is occasional but Sharon Morgan makes her into a powerful black-clothed figure of awing certainty.

As for directors Icke is Icke and Harvey is Harvey. Art is not a competition. A couple of “Uncle Vanya's” linger in the memory. Both stand out but in their different ways. The emotional rush here is high. There is a point in which Jamie Ballard enters holding a bunch of flowers. He encounters an embrace of fierce eroticism and the man of forty-seven assumes the expression of a boy. It is one small instance of this production's richness of expression. Succession management is a core responsibility of boards. Companies prosper when innovation is layered on continuity. This is a very fine production that is wholly in what has become the tradition of Theatr Clwyd.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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