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Uncle Vanya

David Ganly as the eponymous Uncle Vanya. Photo: Anthony Robling David Ganly as the eponymous Uncle Vanya. Photo: Anthony Robling

The tapping of the watchman’s stick sounds like a metronome throughout Mark Rosenblatt’s gently melancholy production of Chekhov’s play, marking out the minutes until death.

That makes it sound bleaker than it is. Samuel Adamson’s adaptation has a lot of warmth and humour, though it’s not quite as playful and raucous as Mike Poulton’s lively adaptation for the Print Room a couple of years back or as overtly modernised as Anya Reiss’ recent iPad-laden take at the St James Theatre. But Adamson has previously adapted Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, and he’s clearly at home with the play’s rhythms, while Rosenblatt’s production is visually very striking.

Designer Dick Bird has filled the huge Quarry Theatre space with a forest of telegraph poles, slim as winter trees and coolly lit by Sinead McKenna, along with an array of faded garden furniture and a neglected tea urn. In later scenes, a worn red carpet and a series of large windows enhance this sense of isolation and gradual decline.

David Ganly’s poignant Vanya is slightly schlubby and resigned to a life on the sidelines. Ryan Kiggell’s Astrov is a far more angular figure, though he lacks some of the doctor’s usual charisma, and without this it’s much harder to warm to the character.

It’s the women who leave the deepest impression here. Georgina Rylance’s Jelena is elegant and poised, much given to vocalising her misery and clearly ill at ease in the countryside, but not aloof, not aggressively chilly in her manner. There’s a softness to her.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett, as the desperately yearning Sonya, perennially clad in shapeless dresses and dungarees, gives a similarly rounded performance. That wonderful moment when these two share a drink together, when they finally find a patch of common ground – even if it is their mutual unhappiness – and giddily contemplate filling the house with music, is very nicely handled.

But the production takes a while to get there. The opening scenes feel rather subdued, a little marooned. This is in part a result of the sheer size of the venue: while there have been attempts to address the issues of staging Chekhov in a space of this nature, they’re not always successful. Subtleties of expression get lost, some of the performances feel broader than others, and the passages of direct address to the audience feel jarring. But gradually the mood of the play builds and the scenes of parting, those endless, aching Chekhovian farewells, have a real power. Rosenblatt makes you feel the characters’ absence, their gone-ness, and its impact on those who remain.

It’s not the boldest take on the play. It’s not a boat-rocker and lacks the intimate energy of Lucy Bailey’s brilliant Print Room production. But when it hits its stride, it’s atmospheric, tender and capably staged.

Dates: February 28-March 21, PN March 4

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Atmospheric production of Chekhov takes a while to warm up