Uncle Vanya

Reviewer's Rating

After Andrew Scott’s recent, virtuosic solo-take on this play, it is actually something of a relief to see a samovar on the table once more and Juliet Garricks, as Marina, sitting calmly knitting at the table. One of the great virtues of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is the intimacy it creates between actors and audience through its structure in-the-round, and this pays real dividends in Chekhov as the actors have no need to project and can present their characterisations in minutely calibrated detail. With a uniformly excellent cast, as here, the dramatist’s status as the poet of graduated disappointment is only enhanced as the actors balance different degrees of hope of despair.

Astonishingly this is Trevor Nunn’s first take on this play, but the production certainly benefits from his long experience in building the arc of scenes and modulating both rapid-fire dialogue and long speeches to best advantage. Control of tone is particularly challenging – you need to feel the moments of warmth and broad genial humour among a family group all of whom know each other well; but also need to appreciate the cracks appearing into which the action could collapse at any point; and when action does take place it needs to feel both tragic and comic, potentially life-changing and inherently absurd. This is a very tall order, where most productions fall short; yet here each transition and set-piece is triumphantly delivered.

We find ourselves on a rural Russian estate run quietly and with hard work and moderate success by Vanya and his niece, Sonja. Their peace is disturbed by the arrival of Sonja’s father, a pedantic professor and his much younger second wife, Elena, whose lifestyles are supported by the estate’s earnings. This visit threatens to upend everyone’s lives as the professor contemplates selling the estate, and his wife, beautiful, bored, artistic and empathetic, becomes the love interest of Vanya and his neighbour, Dr Astrov, with whom Sonja is already secretly infatuated.

Vanya is a very hard role to bring off, but James Lance does it with rare skill, more sardonic and active than usual, and less languid and world-weary. We feel his anger and sense of betrayal at the hands of his former brother-in-law keenly enough to believe in his resorting ultimately to violence, and that is essential to both the credibility, anguish and absurdity of the final sequences. As Sonja, Madeleine Gray is outstanding, providing the best performance I have seen of this role. Her presentation of the final elegiac speech of consolation is exemplary in its pacing and shading, but before that she balances youthful optimism with a sapping, sense of fading hopes in a way that compels admiration. Her relationship with Elena is also notably warmer than usual, which adds the poignancy of their rivalrous situation for the affections of Astrov.

You really sense the prickle of attraction between Andrew Richardson’s Astrov and Lily Sacofsky’s Elena so that the later frustration of their connection is all the more painful. In lesser hands these roles can seem no more than the sum of disparate parts, but here you feel the intensity and eloquence of Astrov’s environmentalism because of Elena’s empathy; the depths of his drinking and of her ennui because they’ve both been let down by life too many times. There are some lovely quieter moments too in which Richardson’s goodwill and kindness shine through, and we appreciate that Sacofsky’s care for her older husband is the genuine article.

The other roles are less nuanced in the writing but given full weight in the acting. William Chubb finds much humour in the testy, vain, hypochondriac academic whose actions threaten to dissolve the household. Susan Tracy is a fine sychophantic foil to him as the matriarch of the household who lacks all wisdom; and David Ahmad and Juliet Garricks play the quietly indispensable, loyal tenant and retainer, without whom the whole set-up would quickly fold. Designer Simon Daw provides a detailed period set which does not clutter the space unduly and the creative team finesse the difficult scene with the gun as well as anyone can.

If you can get a ticket for this superb production you will not regret it and the memories will linger long.


Anton Chekhov

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond

Director: Trevor Nunn

Cast: David Ahmad, William Chubb, Juliet Garricks, Madeleine Gray, James Lance, Andrew Richardson, Lily Sacofsky, Susan Tracy

Until April 13 2024

2 hrs 30 mins with interval

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan