Uncle Vanya

Uncle-Vanya-Alex-Marshall,-Pia-O’Meadhra,-Dion-Mills-and-Catherine-Morvell-photo-by-Mikhaela-EbonyLike most people, I first fell in love with Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in high school. It might seem an odd experience to think of a sixteen year-old resonating with a hundred-year old play interrogating ageing, mortality and existential ennui in provincial Russia.

But then, that was also the appeal; the titular Vanya’s mid-life malaise became the unofficial voice of my teen angst, the show’s hapless lovers a testament to young unrequited love.

Chekhov’s play remains a startling theatrical achievement – and a powerful addition to any adolescence – because of its ability to be both universally relevant yet still deeply interested in what is specific to the experiences of each of its characters.

For over two hours, each character faces a litany of domestic crises and personal neuroses that seem to thrum with the weight of a universal truth. From a professor suffering from gout, a plain daughter unlucky in love or a listless local doctor unable to leave a country town, Vanya makes each problem a testament to the near-farcical way tragedy, joy and banality coexist in everyday life.

There is a particular kind of tragedy, then, to seeing a play with such potential staged in a way that so compromises its poignancy. Anthropocene Company’s staging of Chekhov’s timeless classic (here translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is a surprising misfire.

With little evidence of any discernible overarching vision that might distinguish it, it’s a revival at war with Chekhov’s script. One-note performances and uneven technical elements strip Chekhov’s towering script of much of its emotional potential and conceptual depth.

Sufjan Steven’s Mystery of Love plays as our cast wander to sit on ten wooden chairs facing a chequered stage. Despite the contemporary music, they’re dressed in the provincial garb of a 19th century Russian country town. Despite their costuming, they each sport their natural Australian accents.

Chekhov has been subject to more subversive revivals than most playwrights (this year will see Vanya staged as a one-man show). Late last year, Jamie Lloyd wowed audiences on West End with a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull (starring our own, Daniel Monks) that stripped the script back to its bare bones.

Lloyd had his cast sitting on plastic chairs on stage. But what made Lloyd’s choice effective was its dynamic relationship to other elements of the production, and to the loneliness that defines the play itself. Here, it’s unclear why the cast are seated around the stage. If it was intended as meta-theatre then the question is, for what purpose?

Actors sit still, staring forward with a deadpan intensity. But these are characters rendered with incredible detail by Chekhov, and to see them sitting dumbstruck around the stage (yet still in period costume) compromises the depth of their characterisation by emphasising the fact that they are simply actors.

Director Bronwen Coleman shone in staging previous productions of DIRT and Naomi, but these were shows with one or two cast members at most. Here, she has offered her eight-strong cast little opportunity to interact. They are either sitting stoically around the stage ignoring each other, or, bafflingly, speaking out to the audience watching them instead of the character they’re actually talking to.

The rest of the show’s production design (by Harry Gills) is charmingly folksy. Antique lamps hang from the ceiling, four thin pylons surround the stage (often teetering at the slightest touch) and most set-pieces boast wood-finishing.

It’s a warm set – working best when complemented by similarly warm-toned lighting from Sidney Younger – but as Sufjan Stevens continues to soundtrack the show, it begins to resemble a production of Once more than a Chekhov adaptation. Meanwhile, a near-imperceptible sound design pops up occasionally with crickets and 19th century orchestrations (a confusing change from the usual Stevens) to underscore long-winded scene transitions.

Despite an uneven production, Dion Mills should be applauded for his sterling performance as Vanya. George Caledron described Chekhov’s plays as ‘tragedies with the texture of comedy’ and Mills strikes the perfect balance between the two as the iconic tragi-comic figure. His body contorts with a live-wire energy that evokes Vanya’s barely contained frustration perfectly.

While Vanya’s neurotic sensitivity is always bubbling beneath the surface of Mill’s expression; his darting eyes and tense jaw and neck at once vulnerable and threatening. Mackay, too, shows perfect comedic timing as the hapless Ilya. And Helen Doig gives the perfect blend of the austere and commanding elegance needed for Maria.

But much of the rest of the cast favour a frustratingly banal naturalism that unfairly makes the performances from these three talented performers seem camp and exaggerated by comparison. Much of Sonya’s (Alex Marshall) lines are garbled by unclear expression and a near-monotone delivery.

And as Mikhail (Catherine Morvell), delivers an emotionally flat performance that stops the show dead. It is interesting to see Mikhail – a role usually played by a man – played by a woman but it is an underused addition. It represents a missed opportunity for the show to explore its wider repercussions for the script’s female characters or the queerness of the relationships that drive it. Audiences remain justifiably sensitive to stunt-casting and the apparent thinness of this choice does not stand up to close inspection.

This year, Uncle Vanya is on the VCAA VCE Literature List and opening night was consequently packed with the chatter of various high school students (sixteen year-olds remain our most honest critics).

Despite the production’s faults, there was a bristle shared among us at the end of Act One when Mikhail asks what ‘our descendants two hundred years from now’ might make of our accomplishments, deeds and lives; a line that has stood out to me since my own high school encounter years ago. How affecting to think how stirring the line will be when Uncle Vanya is inevitably restaged on its two hundred-year anniversary.

Though it’s unlikely I’ll be around to see it, perhaps one of the students who flooded into Theatre Works for this production will be. Will they bristle again at Mikhail’s line? Will they think on the person they were during their first encounter here and think, as Vanya says (and I thought): ‘They have gone’? Only time will tell.

Uncle Vanya
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Friday 9 June 2023
Season continues to 17 June 2023
Information and Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au

For more information, visit: www.anthropoceneplaycompany.com for details.

Image: Alex Marshall, Pia O’Meadhra, Dion Mills and Catherine Morvell feature in Uncle Vanya – photo by Mikhaela Ebony

Review: Guy Webster