Uncle Vanya - a comic look at the human darkness

ANTON CHEKHOV’S timeless classic Uncle Vanya is among the highlights of this year’s Galway Arts Festival in a much-praised co-production by two of Bristol’s foremost companies - the Bristol Old Vic and Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory.

The Bristol Old Vic can lay claim to be Britain’s oldest continually operating theatre, with its Theatre Royal space dating back to 1766, while the present Old Vic company was founded in 1946 as an offshoot of the London Old Vic.

The Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory company is now 10 years old and has gained a national reputation for its acclaimed, large-cast, professional Shakespeare productions in its intimate in-the-round studio theatre.

Uncle Vanya marks the first time these two celebrated companies have come together for a co-production, and the play is being directed by SATTF’s founder and artistic director Andrew Hilton.

Over an afternoon phone call, Hilton discussed his approach to Chekhov, but he first began by outlining the impetus behind his founding of SATTF.

“I’d been working at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school teaching Shakespeare for many years,” he revealed, “and I’d long wanted to do professional Shakespeare in a studio space but there was nowhere in Bristol to do it until the Tobacco Factory opened as a theatre.

“I went to the guy who owned the place and said ‘This is where I want to do Shakespeare, can I?’ and he laughed quite a bit and said ‘Yes’, and a year later we did King Lear. Audiences really enjoy seeing Shakespeare in close up; we do big casts of 15, 16, or more, but no-one in the audience is ever more than 20 feet from the stage.”

Since that inaugural production of King Lear, SATTF has steadily built up its reputation and has been hailed by The Times as one of England’s “most admired companies”.

Staging Chekhov

Recent years have been somewhat troubled however for the Old Vic company, though Uncle Vanya marks a notable step in its re-emergence as a vital artistic force. Hilton explains how the co-production came about.

“Bristol Old Vic closed about three years ago through various difficulties, including financial, and it was just starting to get itself together again,” he says. “I pitched to put on a play and Dick Penny, the chair, said I could do it. I’m a great Chekhov fan, that’s my other love, so that’s how we come to be doing Uncle Vanya.”

Hilton goes on to disclose his directorial approach to Uncle Vanya.

“I wanted to get away from this thing which bugs me which is productions trying to tell the audience how to respond with a heavy use of music and various other atmospheric devices,” he says. “Chekhov has been a particular sufferer from this, I think.

“It’s been a problem ever since Chekhov himself was alive and writing when he and Stanislavski didn’t agree on how his plays ought to be done. Stanislavski tended to see them as tragedies while Chekhov saw them more as comedies. The whole issue of tone with Chekhov has been a battleground in the theatre and it always will be which is one of the fascinating intriguing things about him.”

Of particular interest in the production is Hilton’s handling of the play’s soliloquies.

“A lot of people have found the soliloquies in Vanya very difficult and I found it particularly exciting to confront them,” he notes. “A soliloquy implies a relationship between the actor and the audience which in the tradition of Chekhov productions a lot of people have found very odd and out of place because this is supposedly the great realist dramatist yet in Vanya you have these soliloquies directed to the audience just as you have in Shakespeare.

“Some people have tried to do them as muttered reverie, refusing to recognise the presence of the audience and I think that’s crass; I found it very exciting to let the actors walk to the front of the stage and speak to the audience.”

Chekhov’s insight into people

Set in a crumbling Russian estate run by the eponymous Vanya and his niece Sonya, Uncle Vanya is a moving, and often very funny, portrait of a family trapped in broken ambition.

The arrival of Vanya’s brother-in-law, the academic Serebryakov, with his young second wife Yelena, throws the household into disarray unleashing jealousy, passion, and thwarted desires.

“It shows us the human condition and Chekhov regarded it quite hard-headedly,” Hilton observes. “In his own life his youth was blighted by poverty and his maturity was blighted by TB. He told it as he saw it around him. This was a time of stagnation in Russia and the countryside was being depopulated, it wasn’t a great place to be.”

Hilton continues, noting of the play’s characters that “they’re all centred in themselves” and everyone’s view is partial and should be treated with a measure of scepticism.

“That’s Chekhov’s genius,” he says. “It’s extraordinary to me that a man who did not work in the theatre could actually come up with the most complex interpersonal dynamics on a stage of almost any writer ever and to see how a person’s presentation of self would change according to who came in the room or left the room. Their interactions are so beautifully orchestrated, and true.”

Of the many translations and versions of Vanya available, Hilton opted for the one by Stephen Mulrine.

“I read a lot of translations and versions and to me this was the best,” he states. “I think translating Russian is very difficult, and even with a distinguished dramatist like Michael Frayn I have sometimes had difficulty with his translations because I’d be thinking ‘People don’t speak like that’.

“Stephen Mulrine is a genuine translator, whereas a lot of the editions of Chekhov that are available are not by translators, they’re by writers who use literal translations by other people. Stephen Mulrine is the genuine article, a real translator of Russian and I think he’s done a fantastic job.”

All the reviews suggest that Andrew Hilton also, along with the Bristol Old Vic and SATTF companies, managed to do a fantastic job in realising Chekhov’s classic play. It runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday July 13 to Saturday 17 at 8pm nightly while there is a 2pm matinee performance on July 17.

Tickets are available from the festival box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street, and www.galwayartsfestival.com

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