Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse
Of his 1998 translation of Uncle Vanya, Brian Friel described the role of a translator as an ‘audacious and cheeky’ undertaking requiring the ‘carrying across of […] text over a gap of hundred years and across the divide of language and culture, and then representing the story in a language that keeps with the subtleties of the original but whose rhythms and nuances respond to today’. By those criteria Samuel Anderson’s latest version of the play, written with the assistance of Helen Rappaport, the literal translator, provides a master class in the art of translation. The spirit of the Russian play, its humour, intense emotion, provincial malaise and ennui are present, but the language has been made modern and naturally accessible to a British audience. The Associate Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse Mark Rosenblatt’s decision to have the actors use their own accents was unexpected but ultimately worked well with the writing and added to rather than detracted from the performance.
Considering that Uncle Vanya is a play about boredom, disillusionment, depression, monotony and unrequited love, it is highly entertaining due to the quick wittedness of the characters, rather than unbearably depressing, as its themes give it license to be. It is rare that every joke lands within a performance, however, that was the case in this production as the jokes flew with laudable consistency. Sonya played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett was likely the source of most of the humour and the pathos in the play. Her earnestness and nervous energy characterised by incomplete actions and uncomfortable and sporadic shifting was infectious and affecting.
John Bett gives a surprisingly lively performance as Serebryakov playing this childish sick old man with vigour and gravitas. In his ridiculous moments, attention is drawn to how full of contradictions he is. He is chased around the stage by his daughter with his wheelchair as he refuses to sit, simultaneously demanding to be taken care of and respected whilst refusing to allow anyone to do it. David Ganly gives a similarly boisterous performance as Uncle Vanya however it was in his quieter moments that he truly shone. After seeing the object of his affection in the arms of another he is the picture of heartbreak. He attempts to show indignation but instead is quickly cowed into defeat with bouquet of crimson roses hanging limply by his side.
A particularly striking moment appears at the end of Act II as Yellena sits at the piano in anticipation of playing whilst waiting for Serebryakov’s approval. After his refusal, loud soulful music begins to play while she sits in front of the piano and for a moment it seems as though she is playing in defiance. However, she gets up from the piano and the music continues, as if from her imagination, as she and Sonya clear up the mess left by the others. The yearning for simple pleasures is exemplified by the music, in particular by Telegin and his guitar, which in the final act Maria and Marina, the embodiments of continuity, tap to slowly and out of time.
With telegraph poles for trees creating an onstage forest, tin lamp-shades hanging as if part of the trees, and a downpour of rain from actual showers above the windows, Dick Bird’s beautiful set is quite arresting. The inside is evoked by a row of windows hanging delicately from the ceiling. The windows serve the secondary purpose of reflecting characters as they turn away from the audience to compose themselves or show their exasperation giving the impression of seeing something intimate and hidden.