Vanya - Chekhov Redux (Gate Theatre 1/9/09) 1 September 2009

If it weren't for a two for one ticket offer I probably wouldn't have seen this. (2 tickets for £16 is a good good deal). I had noticed it before, seen the flyer, saw it in their brochure but dismissed it as just another of the 'adaptations' that we've been thrown recently. But, on closer inspection (the description) I took a chance:

Vanya by Sam Holcroft, inspired by Anton Chekov's 'Uncle Vanya'

(So far so good. 'Inspired by'. Sounds like a new play. Here's the rest)

Uncle Vanya is an ode to unrequited love, dogged perseverance and strength of the human spirit. In Vanya, Sam Holcroft and director Natalie Abrahami strip away the bustles, samovars and supporting cast, to chart the inner lives of four of Chekov's most beloved characters.

Two men love the same woman. Two women love the same man.

Vanya explores the chaos and heartach that ensues when we fall in love.

Funny thing, as I was typing this I realised the anomaly in the copy. It's beeing sold as a new play, inspired by Uncle Vanya, yet they seem to be afraid that theatregoers will be angry at seeing a stripped down version so they let us know that a stripped down version is exactly what it is. Not a new play at all. Here we go again.

I think this points exactly to what the main problem is with Vanya, it doesn't know what it is. Is it a new play inspired by the classic? Is it a revisit? Is it a new take? It's all of these and none of these. They all cancel each other out.

Let's start with the peripherals - design and music. Great set on the tiny Gate stage. In fact, it's so sucessfull you never for a moment consider how small space it is. Basically the set is a box, a large crate that rotates becoming interior and exterior scenes in various rooms. I'm sure there is some symbolism that goes along with everything seeming to be under construction and with the one character who deconstructs then reconstructs it but I never figured it out.

It's all in modern dress. So far so current. Then, oddly, an old gas lamp is lit. A lamp like one you could find in a tradtional version of Uncle Vanya. This is replaced by something more modern later on. One of the characters puts a record on an old gramophone, the music is classical in nature and again evokes another, earlier era. Then, in various scenes more modern music is used.

On to the dialogue - again a clash of styles. On one hand there's a lyrical, almost poetic nature to some of the monologues, but as with everything else, this is placed directly again blunt, contemporary dialogue. it doesn't work - on may levels. The poetic lyrical dialogue seems forced and too much of a style that is attempting to echo another era. The contemoporary dialogue is clumsy and often rubs up agains the lyrical dialogue as if to point out that difference.

The story? I've seen an excellent Uncle Vanya directed by Katie Mitchell at the Young Vic about a decade ago and although I enjoyed it, I have to admit that the storyline didn't really stay with me. I remember not really caring that much about what happened. It was interesting but not enough to make me care. It seemed to be more concerned with the politics of the times, personal and otherwise, than with the immediate concerns of the characters. Just my opinion. I'm not a big Chekhov person so that may have played a part. I appreciated it but it didn't uncover any unchartered layers of the human psyche.

Anyway, I am very much of the opinion that one shouldn't need to know original source material to enjoy a play but I did get the impression that by stripping away any political motivation, which they did in Vanya, that one is not left with much. In fact, it seems that everything has been stripped away to the point that there are, If I remember correctly, 5 monlogues that reveal more about the characters than the story or dialogue. For some this might not seem alot but if you take into consideration that the play is only 90 minutes with no interval... well you do the maths. Oh, there was also another speech that could almost be considered a monlogue that the doctor gives, detailing his theories on relationships and attraction - I lost track of how long this was as I occasionally drifted. Throughout, characters are telling us what they think but there isn't enough information given to understand why? This is where knowledge of the source material would come in handy.

The performances were all solid. I personally prefered some over others but that's not to take anything away from them. Here's the cast: Fiona Button as Sonya (who reminded me of a blond Anna Maxwell Martin), Robert Goodale as Vanya, Susie Trayling as Yelena and Simon Wilson as Astrov.

Going back to my original point, this is not from what I observed, a play 'inspired by' Chekhov. This, again, is a basic reworking of a classic. What I will give them though is that they changed the name and used the word 'inspired', letting us know that it is not Chekov. Try as they might, this version doesn't uncover any new ground.

I don't understand why she (Sam Holcroft) didn't just write a new play. It tries so hard to make us understand the connection with the original that I couldn't couldn't consider Vanya as anything other than a stripped down, fiddled with version. The audience seemed to enjoy it, I don't know what they were reacting to but one person gave it a standing ovation. I can't help but think that they were applauding a new version of a classic and not a new play. If we had more of the latter I might consider standing.