Melissa Blease reviews Rupert Everett’s Uncle Vanya, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 3 August

Depressed, disillusioned and dissatisfied, Uncle Vanya isn’t having the best summer; he drinks until late at night, gets up late the next day and spends most of his waking hours being super-gloomy… but given what’s going on around him, who can blame him?

Vanya’s loyal, hardworking niece Sonya has a crush on local doctor Mikhail Astrov, but Dr Lurve is too concerned with forest preservation, the destruction of the Russian landscape and Sonya’s stepmother to notice. Sonya’s stepmother is the beautiful but emotionally distant Yelena, second wife of grouchy old hypochondriac Alexander Serebryakov (aka Sonya’s dad), who owns the ramshackle estate in the Russian countryside that Sonya and Vanya are tasked with taking care of while Alexander lives it up in the city, and which is also home to Maria Voynitsky (Sonya’s grandma; Vanya’s mum) and discreetly opinionated housekeeper Marina. Alexander is old, dull, brittle but rich; Yelena is young, dull, brittle and married to him. So what makes their relationship tick? You do the maths. Anyway… 

Alexander, Yelena and random friend Telyegin (who doesn’t bring much to the non-party, all told) descend on Sonya and Vanya to break the bad news in person: Alexander is considering selling the estate in order to free up more cash for him and his hot young wife to burn through. Oh, and have we mentioned the fact that Vanya’s got a totally unrequited, going-nowhere crush on Yelena too? It’s no wonder that this lot can’t stay away from the vodka (and you can’t help thinking Smirnoff missed out on a sponsorship opportunity here). But this new production, commissioned by Theatre Royal Bath from prolific playwright and screenwriter David Hare, with Rupert Everett directing and taking the title role – has a lightness of touch that makes it more intelligent farce than (love) on the rocks doom-fest.

Hare’s reworking of one of Anton Chekhov’s best-known plays (which is itself an extensive reworking of the Russian realist writer’s original version, published a decade prior to the play’s stage premiere in 1899) offers a microcosmic look at pre-revolution Russia, and strikes a chord, perhaps, in contemporary Britain; unrest, inertia, simmering resentments? They had it – now we’ve got it. Everett’s directorial skills, meanwhile, bring what’s essentially a torpid, largely static, relentlessly claustrophobic narrative into the realm of melodramatic tragicomedy with a pace and attitude that’s closer to soap opera whimsy than sombre histrionic sobriety, while Charles Quiggin’s beautifully lit, artfully decorated minimalist sets are accessible rather than austere. 

Chekhov’s use of ‘Uncle’ in the title of the play is one of the first clues as to how formerly ambitious Vanya has been diminished by circumstance to little more than the role of carer – and Everett does depression with droll delight. If you want to know how it feels for a middle-aged man to witness his late sister’s husband get the cash, the girl and all the glory that comes with a charmed life while he, as the poor relation, is forced into the role of careworn caretaker fated to put harvesting the potatoes and tallying the accounts ahead of his own aspirations, Everett offers a masterclass. 

As Vanya’s oppressed niece Sonya – diligently devoted to the whole family; constantly told how ‘plain’ she is – Katherine Parkinson is more fiery than fatigued. You can’t help thinking that Astrov’s failure to realise how Sonya feels about him is far more his loss than hers, resulting in a neat, fresh Hare-take that, combined with John Light’s delightfully diligent performance as the earnest, ostensibly buttoned-up alcoholic doctor, brings further light/dark contrast to a dark/light production.

Meanwhile, Marty Cruickshank does a fine, feisty job as the mother-in-law who clearly much prefers Alexander to her own son, which hardly helps with Vanya’s ennui. Clémence Poésy’s Yelena, however, doesn’t quite represent the ‘ultimate inamorata’ that most of the men around her see her as; she’s a little bit too aloof, way too distant and far too much of a lifeless living doll to lead us to believe that she could bewitch every man she meets, let alone whip up the mettle to wrestle a gun off Vanya when the tension hots up towards the denouement.

Yup, the simmering pot of resentment, conflict and despondency eventually boils over rather dramatically… but despite a rather dramatic hiccup, life goes on. We leave Uncle Vanya fastening his emotional yoke ever tighter, yielding once more to fate rather than railing against it, while Sonya rambles on about the rest and the rewards they can look forward to in the hereafter. Depressing? On one level, yes. But in terms of a theatrical feast for the intellect, it’s a joy to endure.

Featured image: Katherine Parkinson and Rupert Everett as Sonya and Vanya in Uncle Vanya. Credit: Nobby Clark