Uncle Vanya – Review – Sheffield Studio
Uncle Vanya – Review
Sheffield Studio, October 2017
by Sarah Morgan
Mention the name of Anton Chekhov and some people go a little green around the gills. He’s a giant of Russian literature, and that can mean only one thing – his work is difficult and inaccessible, right?
Actually, no. Completely wrong in fact. Chekhov wrote about the human condition, issues that could impact on everybody, even now, more than a century since his plays were first performed. If you need proof of that, mosey on down to The Studio, the small but perfectly formed theatre space beneath The Crucible’s main auditorium in Sheffield.
Here, plays are performed in ‘the round’, and the latest production is Theatr Clwyd’s version of Uncle Vanya, from a new adaptation by acclaimed playwright Peter Gill. He deserves plaudits for refusing to even attempt to bring the tale into the 21st century, preferring to stick with its original 1890s setting.
For the uninitiated, it tells the story of a family in flux. The pompous, aristocratic Aleksandr has returned to the remote Ukrainian farm he inherited from his dead first wife. He’s now ageing but he and Helena, his attractive new, younger spouse, are about to turn the lives of their supposed loved ones upside down.
For years, Aleksandr’s seemingly neglected daughter Sonya and her uncle, Vanya, have been keeping the home fires burning, running the farm with help from a handful of old retainers under the watchful eye of Vanya’s ageing mother, who holds Aleksandr in ridiculously high esteem.
When Aleksandr announces he plans to sell the farm to pay for his retirement, leaving those who rely it for their livelihoods bereft. As a result, old frustrations and resentments come to the fore, leading to a dramatic denouement.
Throw into the mix country doctor Astrov, the object of fantasy and attraction for the two central female characters, and the stage is set for much heartache.
“Playful and tearful”
It’s a compelling plot, but it would be nothing without a wonderful cast capable of breathing life into Chekhov’s words. Thankfully, this version has one, led by Jamie Ballard as Vanya. At turns playful and tearful, he is the heart and soul of the production, delivering a masterful performance as someone who, in middle age, believes he has wasted his life and never fulfilled his potential. I’m sure there are many who would sympathise with his position.
He’s well supported by Oliver Dimsdale as Astrov; some audience members may recognise him from his role as the love of curate Leonard’s life in ITV’s Grantchester.
You’re never far from the action in The Studio’s intimate space, but those sitting at stage level really had the feeling they were witnesses rather than removed from the action. In fact, at times when the actors engaged directly with them, it often felt as if they were in it!
That experience might not suit everybody, but it certainly adds another dimension to one of the best plays this reviewer has seen for many a year. If you can see it, I urge you to do so.
images: The Other Richard