Boring characters complaining that they are bored of their boring lives; it’s not the most promising of synopses, yet Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov’s most enduring plays.
But there’s something so compelling about the title character, a man who has seen life’s opportunities pass him by as he quietly and dutifully went about his business but has finally been confronted by the mundane straw that has broken the dull camel’s back, though I’m surprised the dreary dromedary could summon enough energy to protest.
On a rural Russian estate with, in Christopher Oram’s design, the wooden feel of an almost forgotten folk tale, Ken Stott’s red-faced Vanya bristles with sarcasm and resentment, railing like a frustrated hobbit and always ready with a pithy line in disagreeable diatribe.
His one relief comes from Anna Friel’s radiant Yelena, second wife to his late sister’s former husband – the entertainingly self-important Serebryakov (Paul Freeman) – and the solo spot of summery glamour in an otherwise autumnal world. She too is fed up with the excitement vacuum that comes with country life and being married to a studious intellectual nearly twice her age.
Yelena is drawn to Samuel West’s ever present doctor – a mixture of charisma and a love of mapping – and he likes her, but they can’t act on it as her stepdaughter, played assuredly by Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael on her West End debut, is infatuated with the physician and would push the depression quota over European guidelines if she was ever to find out.
Such intrigue, and yet these people consider their lives dull.
If I’m honest, at times they all want a good shake, but then with a line of exasperation Stott finds the most beautiful pain in Vanya’s soul, West grabs a paean of passion or Carmichael brings a valiant and much needed splash of hope to proceedings.
Director Lindsay Posner has taken no liberties with the production, relying on Christopher Hampton’s translation and a headline-grabbing quartet of actors to invigorate the production rather than any flashy directorial flourishes. In fact, with Russia’s Vakhtangov Theatre presenting its version of Uncle Vanya at the Noël Coward theatre this week, it will be interesting to see which production feels the more ‘traditional’.