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Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Christopher Hampton

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BBC Radio 7, 24 January 2010
 
Jane Morgan's production vividly communicated the sense of futility lurking at the heart of this play, whose characters keep waiting for something to happen while being unable to take control of their own destinies. All they can do is talk, which provides a way of passing the time as well as helping them forget about the emptiness of their respective lives.
 
Robert Stephens' Vanya was a magnificent wreck of a man, a born loser who fell hopelessly in love with his professor-brother Serebryakov's (Michael Gough's) young wife Yelena (Brenda Blethyn). Despite the fact that he received no encouragement from her, Vanya pursued his suit, grovelling at her feet and declaring his love, even when she told him that the only thing they have in common is an uninteresting, sterile life.  have just one thing in common: “We are both dreary, uninteresting people.” Vanya reacted angrily, delivering his lines in a scornful voice, as if well aware that Yelena was telling the truth.
 
It was Yelena's and Serebrykaov's arrival at the estate that expedited this process of self-recognition. Having spent most of his life trying to provide for his brother (and thereby sustain his academic reputation, Vanya understood that most of his efforts have been wasted what a waste of time. Stephens' voice was full of emotion, as he bitterly recalled the fact that he had worked like a slave and how foolish had been. What made Vanya's life more tragic was that his mother largely ignored him, saving her praise for Serebryakov - even though the academic had spent most of his life doing nothing. Nonetheless Vanya showed admirable fortitude in trying to deal with this by holding the listeners' attention with a series of dazzling verbal performances. His life might have been futile, but this did not prevent him from trying to entertain. 
 
Blethyn was likewise magnetic - not only as the object of Vanya's attention, but also in the way she revealed the desperation lurking beneath her urbane exterior. She announced this in a voice pregnant with bitterness at the end of a sequence when she returned the embrace of Dr. Astrov (Timothy Dalton), after a series of exchanges in which the two of them verbally pursued one another. Having been attracted by the professor's academic brilliance, she was now subject to a life of genteel poverty, following his retirement.

As Astrov, an ineffectual would-be conservationist, Timothy Dalton (in a pre-James Bond performance), appeared to know what he was talking about, yet seemed incapable of direct action - for example, continuing his love-affair with Yelena. Yet perhaps this was not his fault: Chekhov, a doctor himself, was aware of the limitations placed on country practitioners. To the ageing Nanny (Madoline Thomas), Astrov complained - in one of the production's many comic moments: “Doctor Atrophied, that’s me.” 

Gough's Serebryakov was full of outward charm, his feline tones contrasting violently with Vanya's more abrasive voice. However he also managed to make us feel sorry for him, having spent so much time at the top of the academic tree and now reduced to living on his former wife’s estate. He recalled his earlier life of privilege, full of mental stimulation, publications, success and fame, which contrasted starkly with his present life in a broken-down house: "My life is over, Yelena, and I didn’t experience any of it." This line in a sense summed up all the protagonists' lives. 

The professor’s daughter Sonya (Cheryl Campbell) elicited most of our sympathy, as she never had the chance to determine her own destiny. She is condemned to a life of drudgery working with Vanya in a dull routine of book-keeping, bill paying and maintaining a rapidly declining estate. All she could do was to keep her head held high, and not give in to despair. Her final speech, comforting Vanya, assuring him that they can and will endure, to receive their reward in the next life, was compellingly delivered; her soft, almost maternal tones offering a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak future.

Beautifully directed and performed by an all-star cast, this Uncle Vanya confirmed beyond doubt Chekhov's ability to write brilliant parts for actors.