BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Hampstead Theatre

BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Hampstead Theatre

BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre presents Uncle Vanya in a new translation by Terry Johnson, who's also at its helm as director. Chekhov's well-known piece follows Sonia and her uncle Vanya as they receive a visit from her father and his beautiful younger wife Yeliena at the rural estate they manage on his behalf. Yeliena's presence stirs Vanya's long-forgotten regrets as well as his friend's Astrov's feelings and nearly destroys the balance they've established in the country.

Johnson updates the text slightly but does not alter the setting or time where the play takes place: in this case, erasing the difficulty of the language and making it appreciably more modern meets the audience halfway and helps them to focus on its storyline, which is given a much humorous vein in his version.

He exploits Chekhov's irony from the very start, building the characters (especially Vanya) anew. This unusual slant dips into farcical instances and - even though the time of the year could excuse the somewhat panto-leaning take - at times comes off as perplexing. It's a peculiar shape to give to this specific play.

As Vanya, Alan Cox is delightfully sassy when he doesn't overact the part by burying his face into his hands every turn of the line. While his antagonism towards his brother-in-law Serebriakow and his mother are attuned to the role, Cox is unconvincing in his profuse displays of love (or mere lust?) to Yelenia.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alec Newman as Vanya's doctor and friend Astrov. He takes over the stage, delectably stealing the scene from the titular character at any given chance. Newman is confident and charming, tipping into shady and worrying as he fundamentally harasses Abbey Lee's Yeliena with uninvited attention for most of the time - until Yeliena is all of a sudden attracted to him.

Alice Bailey Johnson balances Lee (who's making her debut) gracefully, portraying a disheartened but soft Sonia. She stabilises Lee's overdone Yeliena, who too often topples into a vicious circle of farcical delivery. She is, though, cast perfectly in her physicality, as Lee is exactly what Chekhov describes on the page.

Tim Shorthall's exquisite set feels as much a character. The cracked paint, scattered dead leaves and birches growing straight from the flooring all play into the autumnal and outdoors-y feel of the show - aided by Ben Ormerod's subtle lighting design. The curtain is drawn at the end of each act and the scene morphs according to the new setting, actively engaging with the show's subtitle.

All in all, Johnson's Uncle Vanya is a valid rendition of Chekhov's work, and will be a refreshing and interesting take for those who are already acquainted with the Russian playwright. As this version strays substantially from the tragic air of the tragicomedy, it might, however, be misleading for the ones who are less familiar.

Uncle Vanya runs at Hampstead Theatre until 12 January, 2019

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Cindy Marcolina

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