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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Laura Carmichael and Anna Friel/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Two Uncle Vanyas have arrived in the West End this week- but at least we know that if the lead actors challenge each other to a gun duel to work out who is the best, neither will hit their target.  That won’t stop critics from firing their own bullets as they ponder the different virtues of sticking to the naturalism demanded by Chekhov, or of ditching the samovars for a radical piece of expressionistic experiment. Lindsay Posner takes the directorial helm for this more traditional Vanya, which is given its distinctively un-Chekhovian glitter by the star-casting of Anna Friel as Yelena. She is part of a formidably high-profile cast. The reliably acerbic Ken Stott plays Vanya, while Samuel West and Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael tackle the roles of Astrov and his hapless devotee Sonya.
Star-casting is, of course, no guarantee of a quality evening at the theatre, and to begin with it feels as if we are negotiating the play’s simmering emotions with seatbelts firmly in place. The talented Christopher Oram’s design seems almost like a parody of Chekhovian naturalism ("oh that this too too solid set would melt" flits across the brain), and each act is dominated by the dark wood of the dacha. It is Stott’s Vanya who at first cuts through the slightly too perfect veneer, as he stomps on with a waistcoat stuffed with discontent and a face like a crumpled paper bag. His misanthropic performance is aided in no small part by the humorous sting that Christopher Hampton’s translation gives to his (pre-)existential musings, as he rants about his professorial brother-in-law as an "educated haddock" … "I feel sorry for the paper he writes on."
Yet in the heat of the waning summer in which Vanya is set, it is Yelena who is meant to set the mercury rising. At first Friel’s performance disappoints. Clad in white, so that she is immediately more luminous than the rest of the cast dressed in muted browns and beiges, she seems like an ideal of beauty rather than a real person. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it is away from the male gaze, in her exchanges with Sonya, that she starts to become more three dimensional. Suddenly confessional, she touchingly demonstrates her pain as she openly empathises with Sonya’s unrequited love for the doctor Astrov, even as she demonstrates her awareness that she herself is his real object of desire.
Once her performance has blossomed, it brings a fascinating dynamic to the play – since you see the extent to which she is distressed by the excitement that she provokes. As a direct consequence, the flipside of both Vanya’s and Astrov’s adoration seems at moments to be misogynistic, though this in turn is a manifestation of their self-hatred. Such contradictory emotions are the fuel on which Uncle Vanya burns. The agony underlying the comedy of the scene where she has her clinch with West’s fine Astrov makes it one of the most potent points in the evening.

It is now part of the baggage of this production that on opening night Laura Carmichael’s Sonya was heckled by a somewhat dazed and confused Sir Peter Hall, who apologized later that he had been asleep and woke up unaware where he was. Certainly his remarks, "It doesn’t work and you don’t work," didn’t ring true for her performance, with its beautifully judged plaintive awkwardness. Yet the evening's problem is that despite having many fine elements, in the first half especially it feels ossified and over-reverential.Uncle Vanya endures not least because beneath the illusion of sweetness there is a sense of a world undergoing painful transformation- but that fact is merely a footnote to this production, and as a result, it lacks crucial depth.  


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