Magazine article The Spectator

Questions of Age

Magazine article The Spectator

Questions of Age

Article excerpt


Uncle Vanya (RSC/Young Vic)

The Misanthrope (Piccadilly)

Musical metaphors keep coming to mind as you watch Katie Mitchell's intense, fascinating and harrowing production of Chekhov's least-performed masterpiece. The acoustic in a Young Vic arranged in the round would have to be described as dry. Every sound, every movement, every word (of David Lan's rather Beckettian translation) is picked out with extreme clarity, often at very low volume. You could call this authentic-performance-style Chekhov -- authentic meaning a return to the playwright's intentions, stripping away the accretion of overdone effect and emotion which in Chekhov's case began with his great collaborator Stanislavsky.

The result of all this can be unnerving. The atmosphere is not the sort of warm, blended bath-tone you sometimes get cosy wood-panelling, silver birches, that sort of thing - but something which builds from individually chosen, separate-seeming detail. Vicki Mortimer's set is economical and precise, like everything else in the production: Steff Langley's sound (every effect just right) and Paule Constable's lighting do the main work. Right at the beginning Antonia Pemberton's nanny Marina makes no attempt to soften her unsentimental words (`you've grown old') to Linus Roache's Sherlock Holmes-like, pipe-puffing Astrov.

The first entrance of Stephen Dillane's Vanya is also typically disquieting and memorable. His yawn is less the sign of middle-aged rumpledness, more an act of aggression, the teeth-baring of a man at the end of his tether. Dillane, conveying not so much crumpled failure as bristling despair, makes the simplest gesture like putting out a match rivettingly uncanny: this is someone whose actions have become mysterious, unaccountable even to himself.

Other critics have pointed out that this, the work of one our finest young directors, is a youthfully cast Vanya. True, both Vanya and Astrov are portrayed a good decade younger than is usually the case. But more important than that is a deliberate effect of mirroring in the two characters. Similar hairstyles and beards suggest spiritual, even physical kinship. Dillane's Vanya could be the saturnine, emotionally vulnerable soul-brother of Astrov, Roache's Astrov the half iced-over, selfaware version of Vanya.

In fact the relatively youthful casting works brilliantly to support the production's fearless journey to the heart of this play's pitiless exposure of entropy, the draining away of human energies. …

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