By Rachel E. Tavaler
The action of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya takes place in a retired and ageing Professor Serebryakov’s country estate. Upon entering the stately Durham Masonic Hall – where Durham University Classical Theatre (DUCT) have chosen to stage their production of Chekhov’s play – the audience can easily imagine that they, too, are guests at Serebryakov’s house.
Aaron Rozanski, who plays Dr. Astrov, joked in a promotional interview that people should come and see Uncle Vanya because “heckling is encouraged”. Whilst the fourth wall remains intact during the performance, the audience are effectively seated on the stage and are therefore, at times almost literally, in the middle of the highly emotional encounters between characters. This intimacy feels uncomfortably stifling, yet it also hits upon a key theme of the play: the claustrophobia of real life, from which neither character nor audience can escape.
In the show’s program, director Harry Scholes states that, in keeping with DUCT’s focus on performing classical theatre, he has chosen not to make any “avant-garde” decisions but rather to stick to the realism of Chekhovian drama. It is disappointing, therefore, to be momentarily taken out of the world of the play through certain artistic decisions. The decision to leave Alcock’s clear face unblemished, for example, creates a jarring juxtaposition with the text which describes his character’s face as “pock-marked”, detracting from his characterisation. Similarly, in the first scene, Dr. Astrov asks the Nurse (played by Gabrielle Raw-Rees) whether he has changed much in the past eleven years, to which she replies that he is now “an old man and not handsome anymore.” Rozanski notably does not fit this description. It must be acknowledged that age-specific casting is challenging in student productions. However, in both cases, different makeup and casting decisions could have been made to preserve the realism.
Nevertheless, the choice to cast Rozanski is, on the whole, a positive one. There are moments when Rozanski appears to be reciting lines rather than thinking through the meaning behind them. However, he brings an energetic stage presence and charm to his role. There is palpable chemistry and tension in the love triangle between Dr. Astrov (Rozanski), Uncle Vanya (Tom Murray) and Yelena (Henrie Allen). Allen successfully embodies Yelena’s conniving sexual power whilst leaving room for audience sympathy. Murray, as the play’s title character, is at times upstaged by other members of the cast, although Murray’s skill and ability to command audience attention really shines through in his soliloquies. The stand-out performance is given by Amy Porter who plays Sonya. Porter is natural on stage and remains completely in character even when the focus is not on her, reacting to the events unfolding around her. Chekhov is known as having ‘created’ subtext in theatre, and through Porter’s eyes one is able to read the play’s subtext.
The cast and crew opt to use real trees for the set – a video on their Facebook event shows them cutting down the trees. This does contribute to the realism and create an enchanting atmosphere as the lighting shines through the branches onto the stage. However, one wonders whether Dr. Astrov, who spends a sexually charged scene monologuing on the negative effects of deforestation whilst Yelena stares lustfully at him, would approve!
Traverse staging presents its challenges, which the cast and director tackle with creativity and success. There are moments, such as a scene between Dr. Astrov and Yelena, where their physical proximity, wrought out of heightened emotions, blocks the audience from viewing these emotions on the actors’ faces. However, the blocking in other scenes is executed with commendable technical success. A notable moment of staging, which not only allows the audience to see the actors but also creates visual interest, is the skilful balancing of the stage with Yelena in the middle and her two suitors, Dr. Astrov and Vanya, at opposite ends of the stage. Scholes’ skill as a director shines through in inspired staging decisions such as having Dr. Astrov’s interactions with the two women who are romantically interested in him mirror each other by taking place at the same location on the stage.
During the emotional climax of the play, shouting is used at times in place of nuanced emotion, to the detriment of vocal clarity. Nevertheless, when the cast exited the stage after their curtain call, the audience remained silent for a moment and an audible collective sigh of emotional catharsis was heaved, proving beyond all doubt that the cast reached the emotional height which Chekhov’s play demands.