Just as “Waiting for Godot,” a play about boredom, should never feel boring, so “Uncle Vanya,” a play about people in stasis, should never be static. But that’s precisely the problem afflicting Lindsay Posner’s leaden, incurious production. Some heavily underlined acting allows key moments to have their place, but without the illumination of Chekhov’s connective tissue of unspoken emotions, almost the entire evening feels inert.
The mood of Russian melancholy conjured by Stephen Warbeck’s opening music establishes the tone of literalism that infects the proceedings. Uncharacteristically, that even runs to Christopher Oram’s cramped set, which initially presents the outdoor veranda of the wooden dacha where everyone is stuck. Successive scenes move further back into the house itself for a deepening succession of interiors, but interior life is significantly missing in the playing.
Posner and his actors seem to take everything at face value. Thus, because life on the dwindling country estate managed by Vanya (Ken Stott) and Sonya (Laura Carmichael) is slow, so, fatally, is the pace. But although the lines superficially bear this out — visiting Dr. Astrov (Samuel West) pronounces himself bored on numerous occasions — an enormous amount is happening subtextually that only rarely surfaces here.
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Astrov is, in fact, attracted to beautiful Yelena (Anna Friel) who has arrived for the summer with her elderly husband Serebryakov (cantankerous Paul Freeman). Yet there is little sense of this until the lines specifically make it clear.
Vanya too finds himself dangerously in thrall to her. When he walks in, only to find her in a clinch with Astrov, the moment achieves the requisite comic absurdity of the love triangle. But little of the pain comes through because although the production is littered with pauses, the emotions that should fill them are insufficiently dramatized.
That’s particularly problematic in the case of Sonya. Whoever plays the plain, unloved daughter tends to steal the show because of the heartbreak she quietly suffers when learning, by proxy, that Astrov, the man she has silently loved for six years, doesn’t love her. But Carmichael has the meek tremulousness without the necessary skill to indicate the pain and forbearance that make the role so moving.
The last six months have seen two other highly regarded U.K. productions of “Uncle Vanya,” one at Chichester Festival Theater and another in the enterprising off-West End venue the Print Room. It’s disheartening that the weakest should be the one that has made it to the West End.