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Review: Uncle Vanya at Theatre Works

Review by Thomas Gregory

Uncle Vanya is one of the most brilliant dark comedies of the ages. While it could superficially be described as yet another comedy about love triangles, envy, and pride, there is this overwhelming spectre of death hanging over the play, with constant references to the regret that comes with age and the fear that life will be over before properly experienced.

Chekhov’s masterpiece was first directed by the great Stanislavski himself, despite it also starring him as the doctor, Astrov. It received good, though not amazing, reviews and began a history of productions that would end up including Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier. It has become so ingrained into Euro-centric theatre that only a few years ago, it was the chosen play to form the conceit in the Oscar-winning film, Drive My Car.

My previous opinion of the Anthropocene Play Company (APC) was as enthusiastic as my love for Chekhov, with my first impressions of Ignis having only grown into a sincere admiration for the production. It was, therefore, disappointing to discover that Chekhov’s play in the hands of Coleman and her impressive cast turned out to be a somewhat pedestrian affair. There is nothing particularly wrong about the show as much as it offers little more than what a threadbare and rushed production by amateurs would produce.

The set, admittedly, is beautiful. Dark wood, hanging pillars and windows all lit superbly thanks to the combined efforts of set designer Harry Gill and lighting designer Sidney Younger. I’ve praised Younger’s efforts enough times in the past that it is safe to say he is one of the best lighting designers Melbourne has to offer. The sound and costume design are also of a professional level, all lending the production a real sense of the late-19th-century setting and an expectation of strong, naturalistic theatre.

It appears that the acting itself is what fails the night, although I could not say if that is due to the decision-making or the enthusiasm of a cast I have personally experienced in much more compelling roles.

I suspect it is the former. There are, after all, some unusual casting choices even before the first word is uttered. Catherine Morvell takes on the role of the doctor, Astrov, so an audience might expect something new in this gender-bending. Despite the casting, and the change of pronouns in the script, however, there appeared to be no thorough exploration of the new queer elements the casting would produce. Indeed, if Morvell played a male Astrov, I suspect we would have seen the exact same performance. In a play whose script touches on gender roles so many times, this neglect was quite noticeable.

A similar problem occurs with Dion Mills as the eponymous character of Vanya. Whether it be casting, make-up, or some other cause, this Vanya comes across as a peer of the professor rather than a former acolyte, and his romantic intentions with Elena appear to offer the same age-gap problem as that pointed out about her current husband. Mills’ portrayal is not that of someone long past their prime rather than just leaving those years of strength behind, and it hurts so many of the beautiful lines that explore the fear of growing old in a life unfulfilled.

Both actors here are brilliant in their own monologues, find the comedy where it lies, and have a physical presence on stage. But the characters they offer us struggle to fit in both the text and the rest of the production.

Beyond these odd choices is the more general performance - of a cast who have remembered their lines but show little evidence of feeling them. It shows most, as it often does, when they have no lines at all - “listening” to the other character’s monologue but offering very little response. Lines are never mumbled, which is fortunate in as horrible an acoustic space as Theatre Works, but they are also rarely expressed.

At the times when actors do embody their character, they do so in their own production, and very little chemistry is felt between any of them. Callum Mackay’s Telegin is the greatest transgressor - a brilliantly humorous performance I may have been enraptured by in whichever production it was teleported from.

If you have yet to see Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya or want a pleasant and forgettable night of theatre, I would not attempt to dissuade you from seeing this show. However, if you are hoping for more from such an impressive cast or are seeking a new experience with an old classic, you might find yourself disappointed by the mediocrity presented. APC can do better than this, and I can’t wait to see them prove me right.

Image Supplied


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