Few pieces of literature capture the devastating nihilism of depression quite as acutely as Uncle Vanya. The play depicts the existential angst of a Russian society on the brink of a new order. Political change is finding its path through an uncertain climate. In this pre-revolution period all the frailties of human emotion are laid out for display. The neurotic characters in Uncle Vanya yearn for acknowledgement; lament unrequited love, and remorse missed opportunity.
“Life on the whole is dull, dumb, dirty… Sucks you down, this life. Surrounded by kranks. Everywhere, kranks. You live with them two or three years and before you know it you’ve become a krank yourself. This is fate.” (Astrov. Act I)
Anton Chekhov’s tragic-comedy is defined by an all-consuming preoccupation with one’s own inadequacies. Growing anxiety and a sense of unaccountable futility immerse the characters – a thick fog of detachment and confusion gradually suffocates any view of the outside world. As we watch the characters age, we witness existential crises develop as they become increasingly infatuated with the legacies they each desire to leave.
Walter Meierjohann’s production of Uncle Vanya is part of HOME’s new Autumn-Winter Season: ‘A Revolution Betrayed?’ Inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Meierjohann explores the intensely tragic and deeply comic spirit of Chekhov’s late masterpiece in a beautifully measured adaption, with a palpable tension throughout.
Most startlingly, to a contemporary audience, Uncle Vanya can be seen to offer a timely commentary about the world we inhabit now. Economic disparities and environmental issues are as protuberant to modern society as they were 120 years ago. Andrew Upton’s translation of this Russian classic allows the audience to view the high drama, pathos and darkly-comedic underbelly through the modern lens.
Chekhov’s play portrays the visit of an elderly professor and his glamorous, much younger second wife, Yelena, to the rural estate that supports their urban lifestyle. Two friends -Vanya, brother of the professor’s late first wife, who has long managed the estate, and Astrov, the local doctor – both fall under Yelena’s spell, while bemoaning the ennui of their provincial existence. Sonya, the professor’s daughter by his first wife, has worked with Vanya to maintain the estate, but suffers from her unacknowledged emotions towards Dr.Astrov.
The emotional angst and burgeoning depression of the play eventually boils over and reaches calamity when the gout ridden professor announces his intention to sell the estate. The professor has a self-interested view to invest the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife. Ignoring the fact that the estate has long been the home of Vanya and Sonya – it is their self-sacrifice and toil which has maintained the professor’s extravagant lifestyle in the city.
There are outstanding performances throughout this production. Katie West and Jason Merrells deliver charmingly understated characters studies with highly developed consciences in the roles of Sonya and Dr.Astrov respectively. Most notably, though, there is a nonchalance in comic timing from Nick Holder as he seemingly drifts through an incredible emotional range in his role as Uncle Vanya.
The stage production from Steffi Wurster is beautifully considered. The bold visual design dwarfs the characters, extending up to encompass everything and everyone. This effectively creates a sense of claustrophobia, adding to any sense detachment from the outside world that is created through the dialogue. Decay and gloom dominates all, it even seeps out of the walls of the estate.
I cannot pick a fault in Meierjohann’s carefully calculated and nuanced production, it makes Chekhov’s late masterpiece feel so fresh and relevant to modern society. I highly recommend getting to HOME this weekend to witness this remarkably pertinent production before it comes to an end.
More details about HOME’s Autumn-Winter Season: ‘A Revolution Betrayed?’ can be found at: