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June 11, 2005

Uncle Vanya

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Saw this last night with Anna at the Arts Centre and thought it was just fantastic. I didn't know the play at all until about 4 o'clock yesterday when I sat down and read it in Xananas. I thought that since it was going to be in Russian (thankfully with subtitles) it might be wise to at least figure out the characters and basic plot before I went along.

I found it a little slow-going until the interval (Russian seems to take a hell of a lot longer to speak aloud than the English translation would!), but it certainly succeeded in conveying a sense of the languid and suffocating atmosphere of provincial life, redolent with the characters' secret longings, frustrations and dreams never realised.

Both the first and the third act started with lights up in the main auditorium, with the lovelorn cast wandering listlessly onstage, addressing their soliloquies to the audience and gazing back out at us even whilst speaking to each other, suggesting a dissolution of the division between 'us' and 'them'.

Similarly, the acts themselves flowed together in a way that challenged conventional spatial and temporal parameters, as the actors themselves changed the scenes and moved props around. The simplicity of costumes and sparseness of the set emphasised the cast's superb acting, with actors making effective use of the few props on stage and moving the production beyond the original text outline.

For example, at the end of the second act, when her invalid husband forbade Ylena to play the piano in the middle of the night, she retaliated by using a spoon to create a quirky, obstinate little tune on his medicine bottles, laughing softly to herself before knocking them over like a petulent child. I thought this was a nice touch, simultaneously invoking humour, vitality, despair and desperation.

The online Guardian review of the moment when Vanya discovered the doctor kissing Ylena link sums up this moment perfectly, recalling an awkward and painful situation and encapsulating both its comic and tragic elements:

…the moment is not just great – it is perfectly sublime. Entering with a bunch of roses, a gift for his beloved, Sergei Kurishev's gentle giant of a Vanya is so appalled, embarrassed and shamed to discover her in a passionate clinch with Astrov that he becomes rooted to the spot and tries to hide his huge body behind his own small, dripping bouquet.

At the end of the play, Sonya's passionate speech 'We shall rest! We shall rest!' burst forth with desolation, frustration, sadness and rage, nevertheless retaining a grain of dogged stoicism (which I understand is the conventional interpretation of these lines). As the haystacks that had been ominously suspended over the stage for the duration of the play descended, representing a return to the 'normality' of farmwork and provincial life, we realise that she and Vanya will – and must – continue to endure the unexplained agony of their fate.

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