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May 7, 2007 | by  | in Theatre |
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Uncle Vanya

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translation by Stuart Young
Directed by Susan Wilson
Production at Circa until Saturday, June 2
Concession tickets: $18 with one hour standby

Chekhov’s writing teeters on the edge of tragedy, edges towards comedy, and always, always makes my heart wrench. Even at my most cynical – and with my BA in Theatre finished, and my days taken up with studying Marketing, I certainly am cynical – Chekhov still does that to me. What’s more, he does that to me just from reading the text. Performed, Chekhov is a whole other story. Thus, a bad production of Chekhov makes me want to vomit, run up on stage and shout: “No, no, no! Nina should be played like this!” while I flail my arms madly and try to act.

Fortunately, the Circa audience was spared that spectacle. Susan Wilson’s production of Uncle Vanya is excellent. Vanya is a story of “tangled and tragic love.”

Vanya (Bruce Phillips) and his niece Sonya (Mel Dodge) live quietly on a country estate until Sonya’s father, Professor Serebryakov (Peter Vere-Jones), arrives with his beautiful young wife, Yelena (Danielle Mason). Yelena’s presence brings out the desperation in Vanya as he aches for her love. Her youth and beauty are a reminder of the life he has wasted. Similarly, the Doctor (Jeffrey Thomas) is also captured by Yelena’s charm and beauty. Unfortunately for sister-in-law Sonya, who loves the Doctor, Yelena shares the attraction, being acutely aware that she no longer loves her sick and old husband. Alas, love is unfulfilled.

Bruce Phillips is a delight as Vanya, and plays one of the key roles in turning the tragedy tragicomic. Overall, the moments where everything appears ordinary but a character quietly turns away and sobs are played with heart, and avoid the ultimate pitfall of Chekhov: melodrama. The set is simple: old-fashioned furniture is contrasted with a wall of stripped-back wallpaper. I’m not sure exactly what this is supposed to signify – the stripping away of the characters’ secrets, perhaps? Lighting conveys the simple changes in time and place, as well as focusing our attention on certain characters. The production uses a New Zealand translation of the work, by the excellent Stuart Young. In fact, the translation is so good that you almost don’t notice it, apart from the odd chuckles at some stray Kiwi-isms.

While The Seagull is certainly my favourite Chekhov play – perhaps because it’s the most moving – Uncle Vanya combines Chekhov’s brilliant social satire with moving relationships and poignant modern-day messages.

One young theatre-goer commented to me upon leaving the auditorium: “I didn’t get it… I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.” I replied: “That, my dear friend, is Chekhov.” That is why Chekhov endures.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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