THERE was a warmth to the set for the Russian family drama Uncle Vanya in the Emlyn Williams theatre at Clwyd Theatre Cymru.
Soft light bathed an ambiguous central space, lighting the red rugs, burnishing the bronze samovar, glowing around the over-arching tree branches which, in turn, were framed by a gleaming carved pediment delineating the square stage.
We were both inside and outside, an apt metaphor for our in-the-round view of this Chekhov classic, often billed as a tragi-comedy. It was a new version by writer Peter Gill, acceptably updated in its language, but faithful to the intensity of the play.
The bucolic serenity of the opening scene, though, soon disappeared amid a maelstrom of emotions as this warring family made its appearance. The first half was dominated by the self-pitying disillusionment of Jamie Ballard’s perpetually angry Vanya, lashing out particularly at his professor brother-in-law, Martin Turner’s suave Serebryakov.
It was the professor’s visit to the family country estate, whose revenues had maintained his city lifestyle, that forced Vanya to confront the painful reality of his barren existence. All his life he had worked the estate and for what? For a man he now despised.
This was the nub of a drama whose other players were nursing various feelings of frustration, boredom, guilt, and unrequited passion, like Shanaya Rafaat’s elegant Elena, Serebryakov’s much younger second wife, driven mad by his gouty moaning, and Rosy Sheehy’s naïve Sonya, Vanya’s niece and co-worker, secretly in love with Oliver Dimsdale’s vodka-drinking Astrov, the visiting vet whose passion lay elsewhere, for the disappearing Russian forests – and maybe also for Elena…
It was a little tedious, to be honest, much earnest self-examinations, encounters that didn’t quite connect, spirit-lowering diatribes. Close as we were, these characters didn’t engage at this stage. And when they occasionally talked out to the audience, this strangely disturbed rather than increased the intimacy. We were voyeurs. They shouldn’t know we were there.
Post-interval, though, came action to grab us as two pivotal moments arrived: Serebryakov’s bombshell future plans and an Astrov/Elena confrontation.
You couldn’t fault Turner’s insouciance as his Serebryakov casually proposed destruction to the life which the people around him may have hated, but which was all they had known. And finally you could sympathise with Ballard’s Vanya in his slow-burn violent reaction.
The love interest worked less well. Here were two people whose self-absorption seemed to preclude love for anyone else. Rafaat’s Elena was brilliantly bored, animated only by the chance to orchestrate Sonya’s affairs. Dimsdale’s Astrov showed little care for others, clearly preferring trees to people. Lack of chemistry between the two meant little evidence of a grand passion.
Sheehy’s Sonia, however, finely portrayed her unrequited love. It shone from her eyes and face, and drove her restless demeanour.
And it was she who held us in the final dust-settling scene, with the disruptive visitors gone and peace returning.
Her warm stoicism was shared by Ballard’s Vanya with a closeness that was, however briefly, finally almost happiness.