The ghosts of previous productions always linger around the classics, but never more so for Uncle Vanya, which I’ve seen five times this year alone. Seeing it yet again in Lindsay Posner’s West End staging at the Vaudeville, I couldn’t help remembering one at the same address in 1988 with Michael Gambon in the title role, Imelda Staunton as Sonya and Jonathan Pryce as Astrov. And three days after this latest one opened, by curious coincidence yet another Uncle Vanya - a Russian-language production - began a season at London’s Noel Coward theatre.
Anna Friel (Yelena) and Ken Stott (Vanya) in Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
It is clearly the play of my year, but this version is not, unfortunately, the best. Two of the other productions I’ve seen this year have been intimate, immersive in-the-round stagings - by contrast, Posner’s more traditional, by-the-book version is staged within a boxy proscenium.
In the narrow funnel of the Vaudeville, it feels simultaneously remote and unfocused. With fewer than 700 seats, it may be one of our smaller playhouses, yet watching this play from prime seats in the middle of row H, it came across as a slow drag through unhappy lives.
That’s partly due to Posner’s slow linger on the stultifying boredom of country life - in the process, it threatens to become boring itself. It doesn’t help, either, that the clunky set changes of Christopher Oram’s fussy design require long waits between acts, or that Paul Pyant’s lighting frequently matches that gloom.
The story may be about a middle-aged man, here given as 53, whose life force has been drained out of him, and those around him - like the visiting doctor Astrov and his quietly resigned niece Sonya - but it shouldn’t drain the life out of the audience, too, with its alternately tender and raging portraits of surviving life’s disappointments.
Maybe this production is just another of those disappointments that we have to survive. I’m not going to rage against it, though, just quietly reflect that its contrasting textures have not been bound into a cohesive whole. A really good set of actors give a perfectly good set of performances, but that’s exactly what it collectively seems like - performance, not feeling.
There are a couple of exceptions - Laura Carmichael makes a delicately impressive West End debut as the wounded Sonya, and Samuel West brings a piercing intelligence to Astrov with his premonitions of climate change disaster. But Ken Stott bustles around like a low-budget Simon Russell Beale as Vanya - a role Beale has inevitably played - without bringing an equivalent complexity of dramatic colours to it. And Anna Friel has the radiant beauty Yelena must have, but is too stiff and studied.