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The Theatreguide.London Review

Uncle Vanya
Hampstead Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

This is a good Uncle Vanya, perhaps a very good one. If it is not a great Uncle Vanya, that might be too much to ask for.

One aspect of Chekhov's genius was his ability to show us the little lives and little tragedies of little people and make us see that those lives and tragedies were big to them.

A good production makes us overcome our preliminary dismissal of these people as small and sympathise with their real-to-them pains. A great production makes us feel that those tragedies are in fact greater than we first thought, shaking us as well as the characters.

Three decades ago Michael Gambon played a Vanya who came face to face with his own total irrelevance to the world, and sixteen years ago Simon Russell Beale made us watch a man realise that he would never ever be loved.

In Terry Johnson's new adaptation and production, Alan Cox plays a Vanya who has some bad experiences and is left unhappy by them. We sympathise, but we do not feel the full force of his pain with him.

Vanya and his niece Sonia run the family estate for Sonia's father, a Moscow professor. But a visit from the professor shows him a vain, empty, unappreciative egotist not worthy of their sacrifices, while his beautiful new wife Yeliena can only express mild annoyance when Vanya falls in love with her. Meanwhile Astrov, the local doctor, also falls for Yeliena, blind to the fact that Sonia loves him.

As Alan Cox plays him, Vanya is a man who rather enjoys grumbling about his life only to realise painfully that he actually is as unhappy as he has been claiming to be.

The shock almost breaks him, but not in a way that we can do more than sympathise with from a safe distance, and there is just enough of a hint of getting-what-he-deserves to distance us further.

The two women are played stronger than usual here, with good effect. Alice Bailey Johnson's Sonia doesn't just mope around as too many Sonias do. She clearly wears the trousers in this family, bullying the men and fighting admirably to retain some dignity in despair.

Abbey Lee takes all the opportunities the script allows her to show that Yeliena is at least aware of her own shallowness and feels some guilt for it, but gives too little indication of how and why she is attracted to Astrov. Robin Soans seems unsure whether to play the professor as villain or just sad old man.

Alec Newman is a particular disappointment as Astrov who, aside from being Vanya's rival for Yeliena's love, is the obligatory the-future-will-be-better idealist who appears in all Chekhov's plays.

The scene in which he shows Yeliena his maps of the region and fears for the vanishing forests should be driven by the intensity of his passion for his subject, which then mutates into a sexual energy between them. But here the focus of the scene is on her boredom, and he sinks into just some nut nattering on about his private obsessions.

I've seen worse Uncle Vanyas that couldn't even generate any respect or concern for the characters. But by inspiring pity and little more, this one stops short of greatness.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Uncle Vanya - Hampstead Theatre 2018

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