Review: Uncle Vanya at The Studio – ‘ambitious and thoughtful’
Russia’s finest has made its way to Sheffield, as Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya” runs at Studio Theatre 18 October – 4 November, under direction by Tamara Harvey and produced by Sheffield Theatres and Theatr Clwyd. Here’s what out reviewer Oliver McKinley made of it.
Chekhov’s drama bristles with contradictions: loves defined as much by their hate as their amorous passion, and lives which are wasted in youth and agonised over in old age. This should be tragic but Chekhov, the master dramatist, brings the foibles and weaknesses of men and women to life in ways which are as delightful as saddening.
The play’s action centres on a sleepy estate deep in the endless countryside of imperial Russia. This backwater has been lovingly tended by Vanya and his niece Sonia, occasionally visited by the kind and ecologically sensitive Doctor Astrov, but their peace has been shattered by the arrival of her father and Elena, his new and attractive wife.
These new arrivals are as urbane as Vanya and Sonia are rustic. Unsurprisingly this leads to no small amount of strife, comedy and heartache. By the end of the production nothing and everything is changed.
The text has been lightly handled by Peter Gill bringing modern turns of phrase and a certain crispness to this 19th century work. It rolls along easily, without too much grandstanding and awkwardness, and allows the voices of Elena and Sonya, in particular, to speak clearly of their deep confusion.
The Studio, under the creative vision of Lucy Osborne, has become a slightly down at heel Russian Dacha. There is a Samovar glittering at the audience, and other choice items of furniture, which suggest a rural idyll coming under stress. Staging in the round has forced the set design to do as much as it can with as little as necessary.
As a text which is so concerned with nature and the natural world, the presence of a tree bough hanging over the proceedings is wonderful. At first it simply suggests the rural location, but as “Uncle Vanya” progresses it shifts into something both menacing and protective. Alongside this is a giant gilded frame suspended above all the action and which creates a sense of enclosure. The overall effect of this is to contain the drama and it becomes a little like the Big Brother house.
As the plot develops and passions boil over, the actors rise to the occasion. Vanya, played by Jamie Ballard, is at the heart of the production. He is made likeable and convivial, particularly in the drinking scene, and played as an honest man being cruelly shafted.
This is well complimented by Oliver Dimsdale’s subtle and yet forcefully passionate Astrov. They are both troubled men unable to force the realities of their lives and with hearts ripe for aching. Shanaya Rafaat’s Elena is more than a gold digging temptress playing with the men around her. Rafaat plays her every bit as a grownup Veruca Salt, she is petulant, spoilt and petty, but she also brings to the role an awareness of her vulnerability and weakness. As her counter is Rosie Sheehy’s Sonia, an honest, decent, vulnerable and yet strong young woman. Seeing her overcome her turmoil is heart-warming.
There is a great deal of bleakness in this show, but from that void comes laughter. The personalities of Chekhov’s characters are brought into sharp focus by a thoughtful cast and their lusts and tensions erupt in this ambitious and well-handled performance.
Uncle Vanya runs from 18 October to 4 November at The Studio theatre, get your tickets here.