Chekhov comes to the Courthouse – so what are you going to do about it?
Once more, the invincible Chekhov. This time it's Uncle Vanya, presented by La Mama and director Greg Ulfan's new company, Metanoia. And like old Vanya himself, this production is a melancholy, angstful beast, slow on its feet, shouty and somewhat erratic.
But it is a restless play, after all, set in a house where no one has slept for days. The arrival of an arrogant, demanding old professor and his desirable young wife has upset the quiet routine of a rural estate. The local, serious-minded doctor is being uncharacteristically frivolous. Sonya, the gentle-natured owner of the estate is love sick. And her uncle, Vanya himself, who has worked the estate for more than twenty years, is on the verge of a nervous collapse.
In a production crammed with larger than life performances, none is larger than Joseph Sherman as Vanya. Sherman's is a teary, desolate, almost grotesque caricature, a Vanya whose resentment is so large and toxic it destroys not only the bonds of family and friendship but even the naturalistic structures of the play itself, reducing all before him to farce. There are moments of admirable intensity and feeling, but this is an almost monstrous portrayal, from foolish to moodily sarcastic to screaming, with not much in between.
Indeed, all the performances are over the top, emphasising Chekhov's sometimes overlooked Gogolian roots. (And perhaps that's why they make so much of the professor's off-hand Government Inspector joke in act three). Scott Gooding as Professor Serebryakov is all buffoon, while Zoe Stark and Leslie Simpson are self-conscious and full of artificial gestures as the coquette and nervy doctor respectively. Ruth Sancho Huerga is very endearing as a Spanish-accented Sonya, but almost too tender. When she reassures Vanya in the final scenes – "What can we do? We must live out our lives..." – it is almost as though she is soothing a child with a bed-time story.
Some of this is good, amid the shouting, but they're all rattling round an empty box, crashing into one another. Despite a new and attractively blunt translation by Ulfan and Sherman (one which makes much of Dr Astrov's optimistic desire to improve the Earth's "climate"), this production needs more direction. Tricks like a using Duplo blocks for some of (though not all) the props hang like cracked ornaments on bare branches, while the general mood goes from desperation to more desperation.
A highlight is Chris Bolton's live accompaniment on acoustic guitar, giving much needed texture and a sense of rhythm. There's a lot of good intent here. This is Uncle Vanya as social parable, not as mundane realism. The emphasis – and it's almost like hand-wringing – is on the need for us all to do something, and to make life meaningful through work. But perhaps a little more needed to be done with this production to give it shape and bring out some of the master Russian's characteristic complexity.