9 November 2017.
Before Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ even gets going, characters are already mourning the loss of their youth, looks and opportunities. All gone, gone, gone. Walter Meierjohann’s finely judged production creates a household awash with feelings of regret and dissatisfaction, its inhabitants searching desperately for signs of hope.
A sense of place is beautifully created. Damp patches, peeling wallpaper, mismatched furniture – a house but not a home. The distressed domesticity of Steffi Wurster’s set design combines seamlessly with lighting, sound and music to create something genuinely evocative. The occasional orange glow struggles amidst the chilly clear blue-white light. As darkness descends there will be a lonely candle flickering or a solitary side lamp. Winds howl and rain streaks down windows. The use of sound and music is striking. An almost constant accompaniment of birdsong and chirping crickets only ceases for one key scene where they are replaced by a clock ominously ticking. Marc Tritschler’s music unobtrusively envelops some of the more emotional moments, succeeding in giving them an added but unforced significance.
A piano looms at the back of the stage, a seemingly silent observer. Yet when the professor’s wife Yelena is denied her urge to play it one evening, the piano comes to life itself. The unplayed keys inside her head are made real and soundtrack her inner torment as she fidgets, tenses and claws at the air. A sudden physical manifestation of all the intense feelings held back within this stifling household.
So much detail – what’s so wonderful about Meierjohann’s production is its thoroughness and delicacy. It’s filled with small revelatory moments. When the doctor Astrov, Sonya’s unrequited love, playfully punches Sonya’s arm she keeps clutching at it, feeling his touch in her mind again and again. When Yelena first enters, Astrov relaxes against a wall subtly fanning himself with his waistcoat – as if cooling his passions. And as Sonya agonizes alone over her feelings of plainness we see beautiful Yelena’s long shadow listening in for a long time before she finally enters.
In the midst of all this human introspection is Astrov’s dream of a tree planting scheme. His desire to cherish and support the planet’s eco-system forcefully speaks to us across the decades. As if to emphasise what’s at stake, the natural world intrudes regularly – tree branches at the window, piles of autumn leaves or bunches of vividly coloured flowers picked from the garden.
There is also humour. A touch of bawdiness as drunken men stumble around with their trousers around their ankles. Vanya’s furious confrontation with the professor descends in to pure farce. There’s even an appearance from a dead seagull with comic timing worthy of Eric Morecambe.
Words ring out clear and true in Andrew Upton’s adaptation. There’s a real immediacy, reinforced by Meierjohann’s decision to have characters come to the edge of the stage and speak directly to the audience.
The whole cast are excellent and the acting is revelatory, engaging us intimately with characters’ thoughts and feelings. Motivations and desires are fully exposed. Nick Holder’s Vanya is deeply believable. He is no fool, here’s a man trying to mask his true feelings. From the beginning it’s clear this is someone struggling with a profound inner sadness. It’s an incredibly affecting performance. As Sonya, Katie West has a purity, a goodness but a moving vulnerability. Hara Yannas’s Yelena is a fluid and passionate performance, her character moving through the household like a hot knife through butter.
This is a startling ‘Uncle Vanya’, full of life and richly atmospheric. Walter Meierjohann’s direction is inspired and meticulous. It’s undoubtedly his finest work to date at HOME.
Photos by Jonathan Keenan.