Saturday 7th April 2012, matinée
One of the pleasures of seeing a new show in a flexible theatre space is wondering what the new layout will be. In the case of Uncle Vanya at the Print room, designer William Dudley has achieved an almost tardis-like miracle with the space. When we came in our first thought was ‘where is the audience meant to go?’ as we seemed to have literally wandered into someone’s living room, only to be secreted on all four sides of the space in double rows. Clever use of lighting kept the audience largely in shadow so that we could focus on the action, and with all four corners used variously as doors, windows, cupboards and drink cabinets (very important), the economical use of space was complete. The effect was thrillingly intimate, so much so that at one point when Uncle Vanya came over to our corner to pour himself a drink we were fully expecting him to offer us one.
As Uncle Vanya, Glen is at first almost invisible, blending chameleon-like into the background. Not overtly depressed or delusional, he seems to understand his situation all too well, a wry observer whose humour is tinder-dry, disconnected from himself and everyone around him. With perfect pacing, he allows the pressure to build slowly, as his deeply repressed bitterness and anger explodes in the second half, only to fizzle out again, greeted by his family as an inexplicable, hysterical, outburst. It is a searing and painful experience, and all the more tragic that the sense of failure and embarrassment seems to come from his inability to simply accept his fate as his niece does.
The strong sense that Vanya is largely ignored by all around him allows him to be the perfect foil to William Houston’s Doctor Astrov, who seems to be the centre of attention. Houston is very credible in his role as the beloved and heroic doctor. Visceral and earthy, and with a mellifluous voice which he uses to excellent effect, this character really seems to have it all – everyone admires him, he is dominant and controlling, and passionate about his causes, lecturing all who will listen about the importance of trees. Yet he also portrays the lost little boy who melts at the sight of a beautiful, unobtainable woman. If Vanya is a pressure cooker, Astrov is a gently simmering samovar.
Amongst a uniformly excellent cast, Charlotte Emerson as Sonya never allows us to forget that she has a sensitive, delicate heart behind the stoical exterior – she is more than a match for Astrov. As Vanya’s pompous brother-in-law Serebryakov, David Yelland is perfect. Clearly a fish out of water, he nevertheless manages to offend and patronise his family before sweeping out of their lives as insensitively as he swept in. The more minor characters all have their moments, with David Shaw-Parker providing both music and humour as Telegin, whose name no-one can remember, and Marlene Sidaway bringing a calm sense of (relative) normality as Marina.
In the end, it is Chekhov’s play which is the star of this show. Lucy Bailey’s direction, an excellent cast, the brilliant use of space, sound and lighting design to evoke the intense and maddening heat of a Russian Summer, all help to let the play shine through.