When you learn that a performance of this play will only last a little over an hour it is a shock to the system. In Chekhov you generally expect time to hang heavy or even be suspended as the twilight of empire gradually sets in around the samovar. However, Venetia Twigg and her colleagues at Theatrical Niche have other ideas. The penumbra of minor characters is cut, and we focus instead on the central dynamics of mismatched adoration and unrequited love involving Vanya, Sonia, Yelena, Dr Astroff and the Professor. There is also a determined focus in the dialogue on Dr Astroff’s schemes for natural conservation, whether of trees or bees, a feature which has attracted sponsorship to the production from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The subtle interplay of universal human truths that underlies the central matrix of relationships in this play is proof against any amount of interventions by actors, translators or directors. This play, like The Marriage of Figaro among operas, will survive any amount of rough handling and still work with an audience. That is true of this production on press night too. The pathos and the humour won through. But how much does the abbreviation of the text and this individual reshaping of its emphases affect our understanding of it?
The environmental concerns are certainly there in the original, and indeed are an important theme right through this writer’s output, whether for stage or as short story. And the loss of the chorus roles diminishes the social context of the play without diminishing the central tragedies of hopeless or misdirected energies and muffled passion. There is also something very positive to be said for the interludes of physical movement the director introduces, in which the characters express emotions when alone that they have not been able to articulate and share in the previous scene. A passionate foot-heavy Russian dance by Sonia is particularly telling in this regard. But for these emphases to work you need a sense of reticence elsewhere, an appreciation that less is more. Chekhov is a master of the expressive aside, the confession that is clear to the audience, but which shies away at the last minute from full-on revelation in character. We do not get that here.
Instead there is far too much direct telling and not enough delicate showing. The tensions that power the frustrations of the characters, spilling over finally into the tragicomic firing of the gun need to accumulate unbearably like the gathering heat of a summer day on the Steppe. Instead there is a lot of verbal and physical bluntness which removes all possibility of mystery or suspension of disbelief. This is particularly the case in the characterisation of the title role, where Matthew Houlihan is too self-pitying and out of control too soon, so that you get no sense that he has run the farm capably and assiduously for years with great self-sacrifice. Similarly, the portrayal of Sonia by Foxey Hardman is at times too shouty and bumptious to capture the character’s essential diffidence and insecurity and desperate desire for praise.
The most successful scenes, which best preserve the qualities of the original, are those between Dr Astroff (David Tudor) and Yelena (Venetia Twigg). They stick closer to the original and give enough space for the characters to navigate each other warily, dropping hints of their real intentions while keeping their cards close. This is an appropriate slow burn that pays off when the truth breaks through – Tudor’s hidden passion and Yelena’s insouciance over the effect she has on others are well depicted and their expression is fully unearned. There is also a delightfully self-centred performance from Jeremy Drakes as the cantankerous Professor. Drakes captures the character’s narcissism, self-pity and futility in fine comic detail, while not losing the scope of its disastrous effects on others.
As so often at the Red Lion, the constraints of the space produce fine imagination and memorable results on the part of the set designer. Valentina Turtur’s paired wooden, rectilinear recesses are spot-on in their suggestive minimalism. They hint at the intimacy of an arbour for a quiet tête-a-tête intended to be overheard, while still leaving plenty of open space for dynamic movement.
There is always something fresh to learn from any production of a play with such psychological depth, and that is certainly true here, even if the creative choices are sometimes whimsical and crude. Ultimately, we are all invited intertextually with the actors to ask a ‘What if?’ question of our lives as much as theirs – what if our hopes could be made real, or even just fully articulated for once, and would that open up a vision of a new reality or just the humiliation and exposure of the absurd…?
- By Anton Chekhov
- Adapted by Venetia Twigg
- Directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou
- Leading performers: Jeremy Drakes, Foxey Hardman, Matthew Houlihan, David Tudor, Venetia Twigg
- Old Red Lion Theatre
- Until 7 December 2019