Saturday, 7 May 2016

Uncle Vanya, Canberra Rep

Chekhov's mordant sense of humour is often mistaken for miserabalism and dullness. Why are all these people spending extended time not doing very much? But of course, the real action is happening inside the characters - there's lust and frustration and guilt and agony and pain. And weirdly enough, it's funny (largely because all this frustration isn't yours, it's theirs). Funny, and painful and true - and very human.

There are certain common themes to Chekhov's plays - they all take place in provincial country estates, they all feature frustrated love and emotional disappointment, they (nearly) all have a doctor showing up at some point, they (nearly) all have a gunshot at some point. The plotting often feels casual and indirect, but "Vanya" builds to possibly the most famous gunshot in theatre (definitely the most famous gunshot that doesn't hit its target), along with a tight focus on five central characters, all intertwined in their passions and their frustrations.

SAm Hannan-Morrow as Vanya has one of those roles that defines an actor and the definition is "extraordinary". He can be snotty yet damaged, smart-arse yet vulnerable, and unleashes righteous rage in a way that commands attention and breaks your heart. Lanie Hart combines glamorous beauty, desire, kindness towards her newly-acquired-step-daughter and the frustrations of her responsibilities towards the husband she no longer respects. Jim Adamik is one of CAnberra's best clowns but he's also able to bring passion and strength to Astrov's ecological passions as well as to show how those passions are sapped as his desire for Yelena begins to warp his better judgement. Yanina Clifton is heartbreaking as the diligent yet ever-yearning Sonya whose never-faltering love for Astrov is eternally doomed.  And Jerry Hearn is the preening centre of their world as the professor who they are pledged to serve yet who they all realise is a man-baby utterly unworthy of their attention.

Geoffrey Borny has a PhD in Chekhov and he proves to be an academic who can bring his knowledge to grand theatrical in a production that engages the heart, the mind and the wits. The set design by Andrew Kay and costume design by Heather Spong support this with beautiful simplicity - this isnt' an ostentatious production (although there are elements of grandness - the giant piano in Act 2, Yelena's showy outfits), but it's perfectly suited to the characters and captures them in all their complex humanity.

A rich emotional banquet about heartbreak, frustration and what happens when your belief structure falls away in front of you, presented with just the right mix of humour and pain, this is a powerhouse production with a team at the top of their game that should be relished.

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