Uncle Vanya review – The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Image above: James Lance as Ivan Voynitsky (Vanya) in Sir Trevor Nunn’s production at the Orange Tree Theatre

A triumph for Sir Trevor Nunn, in a career already choc-full of triumphs

Trevor Nunn’s fantastic production of Uncle Vanya has also just opened at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, to great acclaim.

In the programme introduction he explains he has directed all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in his time at the RSC and the National Theatre, and several of Chekhov’s plays, but Uncle Vanya  had always eluded him – until now.

Set not long before the Russian revolution, at the isolated home of Vanya and his niece Sonya, deep in the Russian countryside, Chekhov’s play is surprisingly modern. The visiting doctor, Mikhail Astrov, is passionate about preserving the forests from the timber merchants who are laying waste to the area, as he realises they are destroying the climate.

I asked Trevor Nunn if all the dialogue about climate change had been in Chekhov’s original script, and he confirmed it had. The script has not been updated to make it appear more relevant to modern audiences. Chekhov was just way ahead of his time.

Image above: Professor Alexander Serebryakov (William Chubb) addresses the household: (L to R) Vanya (James Lance), Marina (Juliet Garricks), Elena (Lily Sacofsky), Sonya (Madeleine Gray), Ilya Telegin (David Ahmad), Maria Voynitsky (Susan Tracy)

The play explores the essentials of the human condition – love, the pursuit of happiness and quest for meaning and purpose in our lives. The production, which is lively and pacy, shows the characters to be fragile, volatile, passionate; depressed and frustrated yes, but doing their best to survive and thrive.

Vanya’s brother-in-law Professor Alexander Serebryakov, strapped for cash and getting old, introduces notes of comedy to the drama. He has imposed himself on the household for rather a long stay and has overstayed his welcome. He is no happier about it than they are, declaring as he finally takes the hint and sets off for St Petersburg:

“I cannot go on living in the country. Human beings were not meant to live in the wild.”

Their sojourn causes havoc, as all the men all fancy themselves in love with the Professor’s beautiful young wife, the languid Elena, who in turn has come to realise the drawbacks of marrying a much older man, no matter how brilliant an intellectual and how dazzlingly fascinating he seemed at first.

Image above: Vanya and Elena

Compared with her, poor Sonya is considered plain and is overlooked, doomed to a lonely and loveless life of hard work, continuing to run the estate with her depressed uncle and her crazy mother.

The intimacy of the Orange Tree theatre in the round, with Vanya and the doctor stumbling drunkenly almost into the laps of those in the front row, and the knowing expression of the wise householder Marina and the frustrated tears of Sonya clear to see, as they are only few feet away, makes the audience almost part of the drama rather than mere onlookers.

Mikhail Astrov and Sonya 

The pace of it carries you through their emotional peaks and troughs. Even though Vanya is depressed and bored, the production conveys the characters’ lassitude without the audience themselves becoming bored. Interrupted by James Lance’s angry, bitter bellowing and Andrew Richardson’s bare-chested carousing, we were repeatedly made to sit up in our seats every time we had sunk empathetically into a morass.

The wildness of the men’s appearance compared with the very proper dress of the women underlined the different ways they dealt with their emotions – the vodka fuelled outbursts of the men contrasted with the quiet agonising of the women.

James Lance (best known for his Emmy nominated performance in Ted Lasso), plays Vanya Voynitsky brilliantly as an intelligent and tortured man trying to come to terms with the idea that he has wasted his youth and it’s all downhill from now on.

Your heart goes out to sweet natured, generous Sonya, (Madeleine Gray) as you see her hopes raised and dashed. And you understand why the Russian peasants revolted as the bone-idle Elena (Lily Sacofsky) drifts aimlessly about, coasting on her good looks, causing havoc and moaning.

The handsome doctor (Andrew Richardson) barrels in and out of the household, causing drama. Anton Chekhov was himself a doctor, before his freelance journalism and then his playwriting began to bring him in sufficient income to give it up, and the play gives little insights into the desperate conditions agricultural labourers endured.

Andrew Richardson and James Lance are well matched as the two alpha males, as are Madeleine Gray and Lily Sacofsky as the eternal alternative stereotypes for women – the decorative and the hardworking.

William Chubb as Professor Alexander Serebryakov, David Ahmad as the impoverished tenant, Susan Tracy as Vanya’s mother and the Professor’s mother-in-law, and Juliet Garricks as the resigned and sympathetic housekeeper all contribute to a magnificent performance and a triumph for the 84 year old Sir Trevor Nunn, late in a career already full of highlights.

Uncle Vanya is on at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until Saturday 13 April. Photographs by Manuel Harlan.