by Anton Chekhov, translated Michael Frayn
Royal Exchange Theatre To 20 October 2001
Runs 2hr 40mins One interval
TICKETS 0161 833 9833
Review Timothy Ramsden 10 September
A light touch too often ends up heavy-handed in this anniversary production by one of England’s finest theatre companies.This is the second Exchange Vanya in 25 years. In the title role is Tom Courtenay, who played in the theatre’s opening production, The Rivals, in 1976. Most of the cast are experienced Exchange actors. All very fitting for the 25th anniversary season opener. But the weight of this glad time works counter to the production’s good; the elements don’t integrate.
Director Gregory Hersov serves up a briskly energetic evening. Courtenay is always fascinating to watch, and especially to hear. The voice characterises through irony and comment; there’s passion despoiled by the sense of failure. But Vanya is 47, and however old that appeared in the late 19th century Russian outback, Courtenay’s silver-haired, dignified figure seems ridiculous in his passion for young Yelena. Of an age with her husband, the dryasdust academic Serebryakov (John Bennett), Vanya’s fury at the marriage lacks conviction.
Too much is underwhelming, from the little use made of the bouquet Vanya brings Yelena, only to find her in a clinch with his young doctor friend Astrov, to Bennett’s professor, tetchy instead of downright aggravating, and Kaye Wragg’s lightweight Sonya, the centre and balance of the household.
Though there’s little sense of a household. Intimacy is repeatedly lost as characters declare and declaim instead of talking in lifelike manner. So much fury; so limited impact.
Most successful are Robert Glenister’s Astrov, his sweeping idealism mixed with a self-destructive death by vodka lifestyle, and Helen Schlesiger’s Yelena. From the first her sexual energy is clear in the eyes’ sparkle when Astrov speaks to her, and in the way she flings kisses even over her husband’s aged torso, desperate for a living response. Here is a spirit struggling for expression against moral sense, and humanity – not just stagecraft – in the unforgiving birch forest.