BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Manchester HOME
Uncle Vanya at its simplest is a bleak take on the human condition. At its most complex, it's a harrowing look into the never-ending cycle of humanity and how easy it is to be consumed by your own mind.
Chekhov's Uncle Vanya originally premiered in Moscow, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski in 1899. Now, under the direction of Walter Meierjohann and adapted by Andrew Upton, it has taken on a new life, opening HOME's new season inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
The play starts out showing a mundane family living in the country, talking and complaining about the changes they've faced since the return of Professor Serebrayakov (David Fleeshman) and his young wife Yelena (Hara Yannas).
Their 'comfy' dynamic slowly starts to crumble around them as each character becomes more annoyed at the lives they lead and, arguably, more self-aware of the vices they all possess.
Mike Gunning's lighting is, for the most part, simple, but very effective. The orangey-yellow glare that lights the shabby house illustrates gloom, whilst also not letting anything escape the notice of the audience. Nothing is hidden, even the shadows of the characters, much like the shadows they hold inside themselves.
Before the end of Act I a green light is introduced to indicate the despair and the envy of Yelena, that as a faithful young wife of an aged man, she is unable to play her music any more. This despair is only heightened by the self-playing piano mounted to the wall, almost mocking her. Even an inanimate object had more freedom.
A small thing that I noticed before the show even started was that the big stain on the wall looked strikingly similar to a grinning skull watching over the house. Whether an intentional decision or not from set designer Steffi Wurster, the idea that the occupants of the house were waiting for death was hammered home by this small detail.
The musical score is haunting and circular, taking clear inspiration from the Russian roots of the play. Much like the lives being led by the characters, the music ticks along, like a clock, repeating itself over and over until the very last moments of the play. It blends in perfectly, never feeling overbearing or forced.
Repetition is a theme that is, well, repeated throughout. A particularly striking moment is Vanya's monologue about why he hates the Professor, in which Nick Holder shows the despair of his character. As performed in the first half, it's a mocking, jealous rant. The second time round, we see a man crumble into nothingness in front of us. A phenomenal performance from Holder is as heartbreaking as it is harrowing.
It's a stellar cast all round, from Jason Merrells' charismatic performance as Astrov, to Katie West's charmingly innocent interpretation of Sonya. None of the tension, the anger, the passion is forced. It really does feel like we're flies on the wall in this country house.
The ending has no real resolution, as the estate goes back to its normal boring routine after Yelena and the Professor leave. They go back to being so desperate to be released into peace by death that they forget to live. It hammers home the idea that humans aren't here on Earth to do great things; you become an object of resentment, like the professor, if you do. Humans are simply here to work and sleep and eat, until they rest peacefully in death. Or as Sonya so memorably said, "We will see life beautiful at last".
Picture credit: Jonathan Keenan