Sunday, May 19

Uncle Vanya – Orange Tree Theatre

Trevor Nunn directs this powerful reincarnation of Uncle Vanya, which meditates on human love, the spaces we inhabit, and the purpose we cultivate for ourselves. The design and setting of this version remain in 1897 – the time contemporary to Chekhov’s writing – while the written text itself also remained largely faithful to the original. The added humour was refreshing, which invited the essence of the piece into the mouths of the 21st Century actors without diverting or detracting from Chekov’s original. For example, the professor’s demand “Friends, lend me your ears” was quickly followed by the quip “I’ll give them back at the end” – with no harm done to the plot!

The acting was simply faultless; phenomenal performances were offered by each and every actor. In particular, Andrew Richardson portrayed Astrov with an astonishing dexterity, expertly gliding between his outlandish and self-indulgent drinking binges, and his careful displays of romantic affection towards Elena (Lily Sacofsky). Astrov’s speeches about deforestation seemed especially pertinent to our current climate change concerns, his astonishment possibly inviting the audience to question how we allow ourselves to continue turning a blind eye to our self-induced end.

Meanwhile, James Lance’s moping Vanya was a masterclass in acting that was laced with comic verve. We were introduced to him as a yawning and stretching creature, a Vanya lethargic in his boredom. He bemoans the Professor as an imposter within high society, but this surface level irritation evolves into something more drastic in later acts… The famous line “Bang! Missed? Missed again?” was quickly followed by a slew of swearing by Vanya, who whacked the gun pathetically against the furniture. Just when you think Vanya might be building some confidence, he only descends further into a lonely bewilderment and tearful disillusionment. Death cruelly skirts around him; even that finality evades his grasp.

Furthermore, Madeleine Gray brilliantly portrayed both the initial excitement and the heavy broken heartedness of Sonya. As Sonya closes the play with a speech that envisions a peaceful afterlife for herself and Vanya, she weeps to the strums of a gentle guitar, amidst the repetitive knitting by Marina (Juliet Garricks) and Maria’s lonely writing (Susan Tracy). These individual yet harmonious parts leave us with a melancholic hopefulness yet strong pity for these abandoned creatures.

It is also worth noting that Nunn’s directorial note dedicated the performance to Alexis Navalny, commending the late politician’s “inspirational” endurance.

Replete with moments that punctured the heart and brought bubbles of laughter to the lungs, here is a wonderful example of how Chekov’s classic can be effectively fine-tuned for a modern audience. Catch it while you can!

‘Uncle Vanya’ is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13th April, details for booking can be found here:

Reviewer: Eleanor Hall

Reviewed: 7th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.