Brian Friel's take on Chekhov's original is wilfully melancholic, but Conleth Hill's central performance makes this production great
'Uncle Vanya by Brian Friel after Chekhov.'
It’s the 'after' on the poster that matters. This Lyric Theatre revival of a revival of the Russian master’s play about nothing and everything places Friel front and centre as the honorary trustee of a very particular theatrical legacy.
Friel’s 1998 retouching of this acme of Russian mood canvases is, on first impressions, a series of light brush strokes. On closer reflection it shows itself to be a clever, localised realignment of Chekhov’s own ceaseless refinements of the principles of studied theatrical inertia.
Director Mick Gordon’s vision of a locally upholstered Uncle Vanya allows us a bare stage with the thinnest modicum of landed gentility in the physical guise of an ever-permanent polished silver samovar. The actors have no props to malinger amongst, or words in which to take refuge in linguistic subterfuge as the analytic of the script strips bare any psychological window dressing.
Gordon introduces the cast and opens the play with a starkly lit row of nine white chairs, each to be filled with a ‘character’, each as pared of complexity as the striking but basic set. But that’s not to say that the ideas teased out aren’t complex, merely the characters are as archetypal as a drunken Cossack.
So, contemporary dress, sparse staging and (mercifully) local accents conspire to offer a faux-revisionist sheen to proceedings. But in truth, with every protracted pause, nuanced profundity masquerading as glibness, you’re drawn back to the time and place of late 19th century Russia and the attendant fatalist morbidity of a middle-class that would soon be consumed by the force of revolution.
The passing of time (so endless and inevitable that even Friel can’t shake its existential grip) is vividly, physically demonstrated here by the descent of a series of frame-like structures. They are as functionally geometric as their depictions of seasonal flora aren’t.
The ennui of bourgeois provincial life is palpable in every framed exchange, to the point where it could pass as a tenth attendant character. Be it foiled seduction or bitter complaint, everything is riddled with the resignation that it’s all just about marking time.
Declan Conlon as the jaded but charming Doctor Astrov wears both a world weariness and fabulous boots with some panache. He demonstrates the contradictive tension between the doctor’s amoral, near deadened approach to human interaction and his impassioned sense of ecological responsibility.
But this is really Conleth Hill’s play. He’s the chubby, far from cheerful (and even further from avuncular) fulcrum of the play’s endless inaction. In as much as Vanya is the distempered heart of proceedings, Hill imbues each desperate act of unrequited love or bitchy aside with a stirring pathos.
His startling, gnawing self-pity is tempered by enough of a titter of wit that has you wondering if Vanya hasn’t sold himself too short, too soon. It’s a tremendous scaffold of a performance which offers stout framework for all other proceedings. It's apt that Hill's Vanya’s funny/sad phizzog has dominated the publicity shots.
The excitement in these people’s lives, when it happens, is mostly unsettling and unwelcome. It’s presaged by the return to his deceased wife’s estate of the arrogant, urbane Professor Serebryakov (a perfectly pompous Ian McElhinney). He is accompanied by his decidedly younger, prettier new wife Elena (a nice navigation between ingénue and vamp by Orla Fitzgerald).
Elena enflames the passions of the titular uncle and the good doctor. The professor’s plain daughter Sonya is, in turn, in love with the doctor. Each character scales the same mountain of predetermined disappointment, only from different faces of the miserable peak. Love is an illusion at worst, and at best a distraction from the vagaries of real life.
'The world is populated with people like you,' snaps Astrov disparagingly (and, yes, world wearily) at Vanya after a rare heated exchange between the two. It’s us, of course, that he’s speaking to, and it feels like a reprimand from both writers for our own intractable complacency.
Perhaps surprisngly, moments of wrong-footing levity litter the script. It culminates in some supremely Pythonesque silliness, particularly from holy fool Ilya Telegin, played by an on-the-money Ciaran McIntyre. 'Wonderful race the Germans,' is a recurring playful motif, subverting both national stereotypes and this most Russian of plays with an emotional economy.
'Research calls.' says the unbearable professor. 'I didn’t hear research calling,' says a waspish Vanya, like a less affable Groucho Marx. It is these little futile triumphs peppering the thwarts ‘n’ all story that make the final crushing futility just that little bit more bearable.
It’s not all existential fun and games though. Light relief of the heavy going variety is provided by Siobhan McSweeney’s Sonya occasionally lapsing into an eye rolling, full on gurning maniac. Fortunately, there’s a dearth of scenery for her to chew up and it soon passes, puzzling though it is.
As an exercise in melancholia and the inevitability of regret, Uncle Vanya is good enough. It’s elevated to something greater by Conleth Hill’s embodiment of a life of promise being broken at reality’s anvil. He is a sheer force of will in a play that typically doesn’t call for such vigorous commitment.
'Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans,' mused John Lennon once. In Uncle Vanya, those other plans are only just visible, rapidly shrinking in the rear view mirror.
Uncle Vanya runs in the Lyric Theatre until March 11.