The influence of Anton Chekhov looms large in the arts but how many people are familiar with his work nowadays? The Curators' production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ seeks to address this with the first professional mounting of the play in Brisbane in 86 years.
Those familiar with the playwright’s work should be pleased, newcomers may struggle to find context for some of the themes but Chekhov’s words have not lost their potency and these talented actors give gut-wrenching performances.
‘Uncle Vanya’ tells the story of an academic Serebryakov (Warwick Comber) returning from the city to the family country estate with his second wife Yelena (Lisa Hickey). The estate is run by his daughter Sonia (Sherri Smith) and brother in law Vanya (David Patterson). Vanya – the brother of his late first wife – and Serebryakov have an uneasy relationship which is about to erupt. In the meanwhile Yelena becomes the object of affection for both Vanya and the local doctor Astrov (Renaud Jardin) whom Sonia has been carrying a flame for.
As the giant Warwick Comber strides onto the stage it’s not a leap to see how the professor throws off the dynamics of the place demanding much and ignoring the needs of others. The ennui of rich country life may be hard to comprehend to some modern audiences, adoration for the prestige of an academic and the class system may need to be given some context of the time too. However middle age regret and unrequited love needs no explaining and the cast perfectly convey characters largely trapped in their own identities and contradictions. Serebryakov proves a selfish character, but is Vanya any less selfish for wanting to commit adultery with Yelena?
It is rich stuff with this professional cast displaying all the experience and talent they have. None is more affecting perhaps than Sherri Smith as Sonia, she proves a dab hand at comedy when flirting with an oblivious man but a key scene regarding Sonia’s plight is so moving she will bring a tear to your eye. All members of the cast display strong emotions throughout though, often staring out into the audience members challenging them to connect to the rawness of it all.
The lighting by Emily Allen is particularly impressive, at a key moment Patterson’s face is beautifully framed in shadow. Each major scene is marked by Brent Schon taking to the stage with a suitcase to throw autumn leaves or winter snow in the air around the set before it starts. A deft metaphor for the fact that time is running out for the characters to reap anything but a bitter harvest.
It would be interesting to see director Michael Beh and The Curators mount another production of Chekhov leaning even more into updating it for a modern audience. Having said that though, some passages that he wrote at the end of the 19th Century were heard and they still resonate with beautiful and keen insight into the human condition. None more so than that life, whatever it throws at you, must go on.