Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Shady Russian Dealings

Sonya(Yanina Clifton); Marina (Alice Ferguson); Vanya (Jerry Hearn); Yelena (Lainie Hart)

Uncle Vanya

Canberra Repertory TheatreTheatre 3

29 April – 14 May, 2016

Director Geoffrey Borny makes much in the programme about the humour in Chekov. He claims the dark view that the Russian’s plays are gloomy affairs is a radical misinterpretation. Choosing to work with David Mamet’s fresh translation, he brings out many shades of light and dark, and subtle nuances are a relief as the play zips along under his capable stewardship.

The laughs drawn from the audience are often at what might be considered to be the blackest moments, such as when Sonya (Yanina Clifton) agonises, “We are all desperately unhappy”, or when Vanya (Sam Hannan-Morrow) is driven so far to frustration that he attempts to shoot Serebryakov (twice) and misses (twice). We are amused, rather than touched by people feeling sorry for themselves and moaning about their plight instead of doing anything about it. Serebryakov (Jerry Hearn) in particular strikes several Eeyore-like poses, and, although he is a ghastly old grump, he is a comic one.

Sam Hannan-Morrow works hard to elicit our sympathies in the titular role. His self-pity is deliberately tedious, but he mines the pathos of his anger and his feelings of rejection. He falls in love with Yelena (Lainie Hart), the young wife of Serebryakov, who is his brother-in-law, having previously married Vanya’s sister. The image of Vanya as an unrequited suitor with a bunch of winter roses is quite heart-breaking, and his understated depression is genuinely affecting. The local doctor, Astrov (Jim Adamik) is also in love with Yelena, and so visits the house much more than his professional capacities should allow. Meanwhile, Sonya, Vanya’s niece and the daughter of Serebryakov, is in love with Astrov, but he doesn’t notice her because she is plain, although she has the proverbial “beautiful hair”.

Astrov attempts to seduce Yelena with his passion for the environment. When he explains the rampant deforestation and the effects it will have on future generations it echoes his own behaviour in acting rashly for immediate gratification with no thought to the consequences. This and his realisation that he has been a fool at the dénouement are Adamik’s best scenes, as his passion is much more convincing than his comedy.

Sonya understands his work, because she has hangs on his every word. Working on the land, she understands that all of nature is connected and that we are bound by our ecosystems, whereas the vapid Yelena has no interest in anything that requires thought or philosophy. The men don’t care for brains, however; they are all in thrall to youth and beauty. Although fresh-faced and dowdily dressed, Yanina Clifton glows on stage: she may be plain (without make-up) but her expressions are gorgeous and make her eminently watchable. Her calm strength and dignity are justly rewarded in the final scene as she delivers the climactic monologue with resolute conviction.

Yelena is described repeatedly as idle, languid and lazy, yet Lainie Hart flits across the stage with none of the indolence with which she is frequently credited. She is dashing and dramatic, flirtatious and restless, and we feel her pent-up dissatisfaction and irritation with her husband. When Sonya admits her love for Astrov to Yelena, the confession is more like a daughter to a mother than an understanding between friends. Similarly, Yelena’s meeting with Astrov, after being made aware of her step-daughter’s feelings comes across as spiteful rather than innocent. Youth and its passing is a major theme, so the miscasting of ages obscures the message. Similarly, Sam Hannan-Morrow is clearly not the 47 years that are mentioned at least three times in the play, and his constant references to stagnating in old age are not credible.

Times are changing and people don’t necessarily like change when it is forced upon them. Vanya and Sonya look after the estate, which belonged to Vanya’s sister until her death, when it passed to her husband, Serebryakov. When he suggests selling up and turning them out, his complete lack of comprehension at their distress is resonant with absentee landlords everywhere. Serebryakov stays up all night writing books that regurgitate other people’s opinions – Vanya tells him, “You know nothing of art because you have no soul.” To add to his anguish, Vanya’s mother (played with intelligence and restraint by Antonia Kitzel), adores Serebryakov, respects his pedantry, and herself writes pamphlets that nobody reads.  

The family lead dull and boring lives. They eat and drink and sleep, and follow a rigid routine of sandwiches and samovars, and are terrifically unsettled when this banal schedule is interrupted. The aesthetics of this life are beautiful from the set (Andrew Kay) to the costumes (Heather Spong), but empty. It is left to the servants to provide the depth, and the richest images are drawn from the land; when the men fight, the nanny, Marina, refers to them as a gaggle of cackling geese. Alice Ferguson imbues Marina with a warmth and assurance, which implies continuity; the delightfully simple Telegin (Neil McLeod) is happy when he sees a job done well, and even the workman, Yefim (Jonathan Pearson) has a solidly enduring presence.

Those who do the physical labour are the true heart of the country. Passing passions are fleeting, but solid foundations will endure. As a doctor and an activist, Chekov understood the importance of true substance over superficial artifice; as a director, Geoffrey Borny does too. The basic humanity of this production is without doubt; it may well be worthy, but it is also well worth seeing.

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