BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Theatre Royal Bath
In his introduction to the play in the programme, David Hare remarks that: "it's not just that Vanya soaks up a bewildering variety of interpretation... it's also, that, in the theatre, it's often hard to discern exactly what it's about."
This elusiveness characterises this specially commissioned production at Theatre Royal Bath very well: it's sumptuously staged with some brilliant performances, yet the changes of tone don't quite blend as well as they might.
It's late summer in 19th-century Russia and a retired professor descends upon the family estate with his much younger wife. Vanya and his niece, Sonya, have worked tirelessly to maintain the ramshackle home, but the arrival of the guests threatens to send already simmering tensions boiling over.
Rupert Everett makes for a striking Vanya; absurd in humour, but also acutely aware of his own mortality and the wasted opportunities. It's an interesting dynamic, and played larger than life in both extremes.
Everett also directs, and for the most part shows a deft, light touch. Hare's adaptation is witty, but intermittently throughout the humour seems to dull the drama - especially during the pivotal moment in the second act where Vanya unleashes his frustrations, with potentially devastating consequences.
The difficulty also comes in pacing. Hare's adaptation is clear and swift, but such clarity leaves characters and their relationships feeling underdeveloped, despite the sense that Everett's direction gives his cast plenty of space to play and interpret. Touching moments, such as Yelenka's longing to play the piano, don't quite hit their full emotional impact.
That being said, it's a handsome production courtesy of Charles Quiggan's set and Rick Fisher's gorgeous lighting. The set, starting in the confines of the garden - all lush foliage, antique furniture and subtle summer hues - is gradually stripped back to only an illuminated cabinet stacked with religious icons. There's a poignant sense of sadness lingering in the change, perhaps to highlight Vanya's and indeed the other characters' frustration at their unfulfilled lives.
The assembled supporting cast give strong performances, if somewhat under-defined. John Light, an injury to his eye and later knee delaying press night, makes a solid Antipov, albeit somewhat too restrained, perhaps - for all his passionate talk of trees and his lust for Yelena, there are only glimpses into his true character and motivations, and thus he could have been a far more vivid presence. He comes alive, however, when other characters are there to play off against, and therein gives us some of play's most memorable moments.
Clémence Poésy's Yelena comes across as tender and understated, at her best when opposite Katherine Parkinson's beautifully nuanced Sonya. Like her uncle, Sonya wrestles with chances untaken, and her love for Antipov goes unrequited. All could mean that the character potentially becomes melodramatic, but Parkinson offers her a cool, pragmatic stoicism that stirs the heart and brings a lump to the throat.
Ann Mitchell makes the most of every moment she has as the maid Marina, and Michael Byrne's Alexander Serebryakov is given a warmth and tenderness that feels exciting and unexpected, given the relationships he has with those around him. It is Marty Cruickshank's Maria and John Standing's endearing "Waffles" who seem to fall by the wayside a little, their fine work overshadowed by the pacing of the play as a whole, and occasionally distracting sound issues where dialogue gets lost.
Revelling in the elusiveness that David Hare alluded to in the programme, and for all its faults, this take on Chekhov is still haunting and engaging, with a solid cast bringing it to life.
Photo Credit: Nobby Clark