Reviewed – 25th April 2019
“driven by a kind of energy and commitment that make it hard not to become invested”
I have to start this review with a confession. Despite loving theatre, and consistently pretending that I know lots about it, I have never consumed the work of one of its greatest writers. That’s right, I’ve never seen a single minute, nor read a single word, of Chekhov. And so, for me, the Hope Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya was actually quite significant. Would it interest me? Would I understand it? More importantly – would I like it?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Adapted by Brendan Murray, Chekhov’s four expansive acts are stripped down into four tightly directed scenes bursting with emotion. The play begins in the aftermath of the disruption caused by Serebryakov, a former professor who has returned to the family estate along with his young wife Yelena. The estate is thanklessly managed by his brother-in-law Vanya and daughter Sonya, but now Serebryakov has new and worrying plans for it. Meanwhile, Vanya and country doctor Astrov have fallen in love with Yelena, Sonya is hopelessly in love with Astrov, and Vanya’s mother is ignoring them all in the pursuit of women’s rights. They are a family full of hope as well as hopelessness, both longing for something more and relishing the order of conventional life.
Despite the small size of the space, the world of 19th century Russia comes to life brilliantly, as does the emotional core of the play. The portraits on the wall, bureau in the corner, and samovar perpetually present on the dining table give a distinct impression of the era without being too distracting. The only downside of the stage design is that actors often have to squeeze past tables and chairs (and each other) in order to enter and exit. Nevertheless, the use of the space is effective.
There is excellent acting, particularly from Esme Mahoney (Yelena) and Cassandra Hodges (Sonya). Both have gravitas, a strong stage presence, and a firm grasp of their characters’ complexities. Hodges is particularly impressive in the final scene, delivering the closing lines in a bold and moving manner. Rory McCallum’s Serebryakov is both wearying and invigorating; Adrian Wheeler’s Vanya is dry-humoured and world-weary. All capture the inner conflicts of their character in a believable manner, making them sympathetic if not always likeable.
There are places where I wish things had come to life more vigorously. I wish that certain scenes weren’t so rushed, or that more was made of Chekhov’s frequent injections of humour. But these are minor points. On the whole it is very enjoyable – not perfect, but driven by a kind of energy and commitment that make it hard not to become invested.
So if you, like me, desperately need to improve your street cred by finally seeing some Chekhov, this is the show for you. Accessible, well-acted, and engaging: an ideal introduction to the work of a great and complex writer.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Cameron Harle
Hope Theatre until 11th May
Last ten reviewed at this venue: