My Russian extends little further than Perestroika and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, but at Camden’s Theatro Technis I did seem to be surrounded by people speaking the language of Chekhov and Putin. I wondered if I had missed a vital detail in the Camden Fringe programme – was Acting Gymnasium’s Uncle Vanya going to be performed in the original language? I was relieved when Astrov (Brian Appiah Obeng) and Marina (Gill Broderick) came on stage and started speaking English.
Uncle Vanya is Chekhov’s tale of unfulfilled life on a Russian country estate. To English ears Vanya sounds exotic, but it is a typical name in Russia, suggesting the commonality of the character’s travails and ennui. Written in 1897 it pits the city against the countryside and tea-sipping labour against capital when the old professor Serebryakov and his young second wife Helena move to his first wife’s estate. This has been successfully run for years for their benefit (though in their absence) by his daughter Sonya and her uncle Vanya.
It would be nice to report that the new arrivals fit in, love the countryside and Serebryakov soon says My dear, we should have moved here years ago. Instead the arrival of Becca Van Cleave’s lethargic but beautiful Helena forces the male members of the household to confront their disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, whilst Serebryakov’s hypochondria and plans for the estate affect everyone.
In this production the scene changes have become part of the play, involving the characters in much more than just moving the chaise longue across the stage or bringing on a decanter of vodka. Wild dancing takes place between two early scenes. The ageing Maria and Astrov dance energetically together whilst Helena dances around her decrepit husband. It takes place in dusky half light, giving a glimpse of the lives they are all dreaming of and longing for beyond the staid reality.
Less successfully, Uncle Vanya’s age has been changed. The script calls for Vanya to mention his age – originally he is 47. Here he says he is 37. Reuben Williams’ Vanya is amused with life, his complaints are tinged with humour. But he feels too young for the violent railing against Serebryakov to be serious. He hasn’t given all the best years of his life, he has some time left.
Whether Chekhov’s plays are comedy or tragedy has been an ongoing question since they were first produced by Stanislavski. He emphasised the tragic. Over a hundred years later this adaptation goes the other way. The melancholic gloom has lightened and bitter frustrations appear as flippant familial bickering.
Uncle Vanya is not the only Chekhov play at the Camden Fringe. The same company are also performing The Cherry Orchard, again at the Theatro Technis. For the dates of each performance please click below.