A revision of his earlier, and unpopular, work The Wood Demon, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya depicts a small portion of the lives of a family in rural Russia at the close of the 19th century. Peter Gill’s revised script, directed by Tamara Harvey and performed by an unerringly talented cast at Theatr Clwyd, is a stunning triumph. Gill’s adaptation brings the play adroitly into the 21st century, while maintaining the 19th century setting.
Uncle Vanya tells the story of how a man, Vanya, who has worked ceaselessly for his brother-in-law, Serebryakov, breaks when he realises that his life’s work has all been for nothing. Chekov’s grasp of the relationships between people, how they are formed and can be broken, is never more clearly demonstrated in this play. Sonya, Vanya’s niece, feels the keen sting of love while Dr. Astrov, the object of her affection, sets his sights on another woman, one to whom Vanya is also drawn. Alongside the portrayal of these relationships is a consistent thread of discussion on the sustainability, or lack thereof, of industrial progression and on the dismissal of practical labour in favour of futile theoretical study. The play is a beautiful expression of what it is to be fundamentally unhappy, and yet, as Phil Morris asserts in conversation with Gill in Wales Arts Review just a few weeks ago, ‘isn’t depressing at all.’ This, Gill reasons, is due to the ‘poetically vivid consciousness of life’ that pervades it.
Theatr Clwyd’s set is beautiful and cleverly designed. A large picture frame is suspended from the ceiling, framing a branch that hangs over the stage. Though the frame symbolises modern civilisation and the art to which Serebryakov has dedicated his life, the nature that it attempts to contain spills out of the borders, encroaching on the action on stage. While the first Act is set outside and the remaining three acts inside the house, the few fixed elements of set design lend fluidity to the piece, permitting the play to escape the rigid binary of inside versus outside. Any scene could be inside or outside, at any moment nature could overtake civility or vice versa. The set, therefore, is perfectly in line with the play’s overall message.
Performed in the round in the intimate Emlyn Williams Theatre, the play is exposed on all sides and the members of the cast are offered the opportunity to fully engage with the audience. Throughout, weather effects and bird song serve to further bring nature inside and contribute to the immersion and realism of the play itself. The strains of longing music throughout ties together the four acts, set in four different ‘rooms’ of the house. The progression from garden, to living room, to dining room, to study perfectly symbolises the movement of the play, from fanciful and teasing discussion of life and philosophy, to the formation and destruction of friendships and relationships, and at last to the play’s moral: work until you can work no more, because what else do you have to live for?
Uncle Vanya is at Theatr Clwyd in Mold until October 14th. Tickets are available from their website.