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Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov

HOME, 8 November 2017

Hara Yannas (Yelena) and Jason Merrells (Astrov) in Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Andrew Upton, directed by Walter Meierjohann. Presented by HOME Manchester (Fri 3 - Sat 25 November 2017). Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Hara Yannas (Yelena) and Jason Merrells (Astrov) in Uncle Vanya. Presented by HOME Manchester (Fri 3 – Sat 25 November 2017). Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Yelena, with elderly husband in tow, decides to spend the summer at their country estate.

We don’t know precisely where the estate is, but it may well be in what is now Ukraine, since in the text of the play there are a couple of mentions of Kharkov. Anyway, the beautiful Yelena (Hara Yannas) is a femme fatale and, without quite meaning to, she provokes desire and destruction, fantasy and frustration in others, and is not immune to these demons herself. Chaos ensues.

One of her conquests, the character that most strikes a chord, is Doctor Astrov (Jason Merrells); he treats her husband, Professor Serebrayakov (David Fleeshman), and treats the local peasants as well. He also cares about forests, wildlife and ecology, and is concerned that each generation is squandering their inheritance, leaving little (even by way of good roads) for those who will come after. Another is Vanya (Nick Holder), who is Sonya’s uncle. A sad, sympathetic figure, who for a long time has been put upon by the professor, he is a man who gradually comes to realise that he has wasted his life. At the end plain Sonya (Katie West) – and it is her story as much as anyone’s, Vanya is her uncle after all – attempts to comfort him through an Orthodox homily. They must accept their lot in this life and look to the next for salvation. This passivity sits uneasily, especialliy when you realise that in her life she (perhaps not he) will likely experience collectivisation and famine (there were approximately 3 million deaths from starvation in Ukraine in the ’30s, according to Timothy Snyder). But at least the good Doctor Astrov’s vision of progress and industrialisation will be partly realised. (Incidentally, Chekhov was, I read on page two of the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography, Stalin’s favourite writer.)

Besides the excellent performances, I very much enjoyed the music here: Marc Tritschler’s score was outstanding, particularly the passage at the end of act two which served to convey Yelena’s rising frustration. And Joseph Hardy’s playing of a tango (perhaps Piazzolla?) was an unexpected delight an act later; he also played the labourer. I have a few doubts about Andrew Upton’s version of the play (Yelena should have been compared to a naiad, not a mermaid, and there is an allusion to Aivazovsky – who may in part have been the model for Serebrayakov – that is omitted; a couple of other things too), but on the whole this is a very impressive production.

Uncle Vanya is showing at HOME until 25 November, further details can be found here.

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