BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Old Red Lion Theatre
We're not quite sure where we are, but there's talk of the Professor buying a gite rather than a dacha, and, these days, a glamorous young Russian wife called Yelena is as likely to be on the arm of such a man in Manchester as in Moscow. All intended no doubt, because that haziness about time and location has implications for how we see Venetia Twigg's pared back adaptation of Chekhov's masterpiece.
We get the familiar roll call of characters: the aforementioned self-satisfied academic; his wife with the applecart overturning looks; the doctor, Astroff, with his booze and his bees; slavish Sonia (though Foxey Hardman is more a young Jenny Agutter than a Plain Jane), disappointed in love; and the Uncle himself, wondering where it all went wrong.
Twigg's adaptation is recognisably "the play" but she, and director Nadia Papachronopoulou, foreground a couple of thematic elements.
The doctor's environmentalism - specifically his appreciation that the planet is held in trust for the generations to come - is seen as foreshadowing the future rather than another aspect of his crankish dysfunctionality. David Tudor is as passionate in those speeches as when wooing Yelena (Twigg herself, all tousled blonde locks and puzzlement at her impact on this hitherto sleepy estate).
Perhaps more striking, Matthew Houlihan gives us a more explicitly clinically depressed Vanya, with echoes of Jack Nicholson holed up in the Overlook Hotel, the demons crowding in as he looks back on a life of poor choices and diminishing returns. Even five years ago, such an interpretation might have been seen as extending the text a little beyond its scope, but changes in mental health awareness give a currency and value to the approach. Chekhov was a doctor himself, so the health of his characters would have been at the forefront of his mind.
And that "gite rather than dacha" thing earlier - is there a touch of Brexit at work here? Jeremy Drakes' professor has all the trappings of the soi-disant Islington Set, the out-of-touch metropolitan elite of whom we hear so much. Vanya, especially, rails against being taken in by his smooth ways, investing in the Professor's future as his own was sliding through his fingers, unnoticed. Is Vanya living in Grimsby or Hartlepool I wonder?
You can find most of life in Chekhov, so a Brexity Vanya should not be a surprise. Nor is it a surprise to see even this 70 minutes all-through adaptation yielding plenty of food for thought.