Review: Uncle Vanya at Home

  • Striking adaptation of Chekhov classic by Australian playwright Andrew Upton
  • Part of A Revolution Betrayed? season at Home

Who would have thought that Chekhov could be so funny? Probably not Chekhov himself, though Australian playwright Andrew Upton obviously sees the comic potential to be had in this most lugubrious of plays.

In this translation directed by Walter Meierjohann as part of Home’s A Revolution Betrayed? season, Upton plucks away at Uncle Vanya until the text squeals with unheard-of humour. Pants fall down, gulls fall from the sky, bottoms are bared and pistols misfired – all we are missing is faces slapped in comic unison.

If this sounds a little too close to panto season, Upton and Meierjohann cleverly retain the brooding desire and dark foreboding at the centre of the play. The pratfalls simply add to the message about life’s absurdities and I suspect even Chekhov himself would be chuckling along with this production.

It does not always work, though – references to things being ‘cute’ and calling people ‘guys’ should ring alarm bells with any self-respecting audience.

Theatrics aside, the acting is a treat. Nick Holder plays Vanya with intense and needful longing: to be drunk, loved, understood, respected, appreciated, and craving an acknowledgment that he has wasted his best years slaving away in the provinces for a doltish Professor once married to his beloved sister but who cannot manage to consummate sexual desire with his much younger wife.

Holder busies himself with trying to persuade the lustrous Yelena that she is worthy of his love. In return, Yelena (played with studied distraction by Hara Yannas) trails beauty – and destruction – in her wake. The object of her desire is Dr Astrov whose eco message about the destruction of Russia’s great forests and natural beauty is prescient yet ironic.

Forget it, you want to tell him, the residents of this country villa are doing more harm to each other than the whole of Russia could ever do to nature.

The sparse staging by Steffi Wuster, with its fading brown wallpaper carpeted by fallen leaves, emphasises how summer is merely an interregnum until a winter of fear and retribution blows in once again.

Chekhov’s play was revolutionary for its time, and still is, because it answers to our feeling of lost time and unmet desire. Vanya loves Yelena, Yelena loves the doctor, the professor’s daughter Sonya (a beautifully understated performance by Katie West) harbours a hidden love for the doctor. None are left content.

We all want to love life but sometimes such love is itself unrequited, Chekhov seems to say

At Home until 25 November.