Theatre Review: Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is an amusing social commentary study

Under the direction of Connor Duncan and adapted by Annie Baker, Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya is brought to life in Adelaide’s Little Theatre by the Theatre Guild Student Society. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is considered one of the great Russian playwrights and a key figure in the 19th Century movement towards dramatic realism and naturalism.

Uncle Vanya is perhaps like a centuries old version of Seinfeld, where nothing much happens, but in an amusing way.

The play opens in the living room of a country estate. Ivan Petrovich (played by Alexander Whitrow) is bemoaning his never-ending workload, especially as retired professor Serebryakov (Leo Chang) and his beautiful young wife Yelena (Francesca Zagajewska) have arrived unexpectedly and turned the household routine upside down. It is soon apparent that the bulk of the work is actually done by his niece Sonya (played by Ellie Schaefer) and nanny Marina (Lily Watkins). The extended family includes Ivan’s mother Maria (played by Deli Brophy), a strange man Telegin (amusingly portrayed by Beatrice Blackwell) and Doctor Astrov (a convincing Ashi Mashoof). With such a huge assortment of intertwined characters, the stories naturally evolve.

As in Seinfeld, the stories vary from the banal to the exotic. The professor has thrown everyone’s routine out; lunch is now at 6pm and dinner near midnight. He complains of leg pains but won’t allow the doctor to examine him. He keeps everyone awake with his demands. The beautiful Yelena, as faithful as she is to her aging husband, draws the interest of both Ivan and Astrov. Ivan is depressed that he is aging but hasn’t done as well in life as the professor. Sonya is like Cinderella, kind and dutiful, but in love with Astrov, who barely recognises her existence. Telegin is a stoic man who believes that life is meant to be endured despite hardships.

Doctor Astrov manages to get regularly drunk, despite being a staunch believer in protecting forests, animals, birds and saving the lives of the peasants. Nurse Marina works tirelessly to make Serebryakov comfortable, despite complaining that her legs hurt too.

With such a huge cast and assortment of stories, it does take a little while to introduce each character and make sense of where they fit in. Despite the young age of the cast members, period clothing has been used to advantage to characterise the individuals. Whitrow as Vanya is believable as a man torn by regret of a failed life. Schaefer plays Sonya in a particularly empathetic way, giving her the downtrodden characteristics of a poor country girl.

Mashoof is convincing as Astrov, a man who destroys his body with drinking while trying to save the world. Chang dominates as the retired professor, one who was used to having the world worship him, but is now in declining mental and physical health. Zagajewska portrays his wife Yelena perfectly as a woman who has never had to work her whole life due to her beauty and charms.

Most of the play ambles along at a steady pace, with a dramatic scene in the second half that is quite intense. The contradictions in the characters lives are universal – the dull boring life is turned upside down by the arrival of the professor, yet they complain when he finally leaves. Ivan is constantly complaining about a wasted life, yet doesn’t seem to be able to do anything to improve his lot. People confide and are betrayed. In a way it’s a microcosm of life that is as relevant today as it was last century.

As the play progressed, the actors fall more into character and less as though they were reading a script.

Despite being a static set, clever use of costumes and props add to the realism of the country Russian estate.  As the Little Theatre is quite intimate, it felt as though we were in the same room as the actors, with barely a gap between the audience and the action. The troupe did well to maintain an effective distance.

This is quite a challenging play, but was adapted well for the space. Even though Uncle Vanya touches on some deep truths it does so in a humorous way. I felt that it would be a pity if it tried to take itself too seriously. There were genuinely funny  moments as well as scenes of pathos and sadness. Like a good pantomime, I would have liked more exaggeration, but this is a minor criticism.

Overall, solid performances by all, with a fun and thought provoking adaption of Chekhov’s work.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The reviewer attended opening night on 22 Nov

Uncle Vanya runs at Little Theatre, Adelaide University until 25th Nov

Tickets available here