Review: Uncle Vanya stands the test of time

Jamie Ballard as Uncle Vanya. Photo by The Other Richard.
Jamie Ballard as Uncle Vanya. Photo by The Other Richard.

A co-production by Sheffield Theatres and Theatr Clwyd of one of Chekhov’s most poignant plays is scripted by Peter Gill, in ‘a new version’.

Gill is the latest in a line of prominent playwrights who have translated Uncle Vanya – using their skills to make the dialogue fresh and immediate.

It’s fluently directed by Tamara Harvey, and has a striking set designed by Lucy Osborne which draws the audience in and makes for an intimate and emotionally engaging experience.

Although it’s set in the late 1890s, when it was written, the play has a decidedly modern feel – due to the truthfulness of its characterisation, and the canny way it convinces us that what we are seeing is a slice of life.

There isn’t a central character as such; rather the centre of interest passes back and forth between the five main characters, all of whom have lives that have failed to live up to their hopes and dreams. The desperation they all feel is closest to the surface in Jamie Ballard’s volatile Vanya.

Rosie Sheehy gives a heart-rending performance as Sonya, Vanya’s niece. Martin Turner is convincingly starchy as a self-obsessed retired professor whose first wife was Vanya’s sister. His second wife, Elena, young, lonely and bored, is elegantly played by Shanaya Rafaat.

Astrov, an enlightened doctor and part-time conservationist who is ahead of his times, is a complex, visionary character, full of insight but unable to distinguish between Sonya’s genuine love and Elena’s flirtatious behaviour.

There is more than a hint of Chekhov himself in Astrov, and as portrayed by Oliver Dimsdale, he even looks like him.

Alongside these are four observers, a nurse, Sonya’s grandmother, a hanger-on, and a servant – all of whom have significant roles in the unfolding of the events. When the characters talk to themselves, they glance at the audience, seated on four sides, who thus become ghostly presences in the play itself. This riveting production is on at the Crucible Studio Theatre in Sheffield until Saturday. November 4.