Uncle Vanya | Red Stitch Actors TheatreLeft – Marta Kaczmarek and David Whiteley. Cover – Rosie Lockhart and Ben Prendergast. Photos – David Parker

Red Stitch Actors Theatre‘s latest production is the Australian premiere of a new translation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The 2014 translation by US playwright Annie Baker, with its use of current vocabulary and slang, gives the play a more contemporary feeling and greater relevance to twenty-first century audiences.

Chekhov’s script places the action in various rooms of a sprawling country house, where boredom, listlessness, sexual passion and frustration play out within a Russian family of the 1890s. The patriarch arrives with his much younger second wife, Yolanda, and a torrent of emotions is unleashed in the household. At Red Stitch’s pint-sized St Kilda venue, the action is squeezed into one room: two tables, four bentwood chairs, a sofa and a window. The necessary downsizing serves to amplify the tension and claustrophobia within the family.

Apart from simplifying the stage set, director Nadia Tass has opted for traditional 1890s costumes and Russian accents. Designer Sophie Woodward uses natural tones for the excellent costumes, which help define each character. The choice of Russian accents is less successful. Polish-born Maria Kaczmarek and Kristof Kakmarek are at an advantage here, but the stricture tends to interrupt the natural rhythms of speech of the other actors, particularly those who have the longer speeches: Voinitsky (David Whiteley) and Astrov (Ben Prendergast). By contrast, Eva Seymour, as Sonya, uses her own soft American accent, and it works well, supporting her emotional and touching performance.

The performances are, without exception, convincing and deeply felt. Seymour and Rosie Lockhart take the leading female roles. Lockhart, as the young wife, Yelena, whose beauty puts a spell on the menfolk, weaves a magical aura about her, distracted and ethereal. When the two women share a scene, they lift the dramatic temperature a few degrees.

The scenes between Whiteley and Prendergast sometimes lack the necessary dynamic between the depressed Voinitsky (Uncle Vanya) and the doctor Astrov, a man of action. Prendergast, who has an uncanny resemblance to Chekhov, does convey Astrov’s passion for nature and his anger at the destruction of the forests and wildlife, in one of literature’s first references to ecological problems. The use of an ancient projector, instead of map and pins, to demonstrate his concern about the deforestation of his estate, is a nice touch.

The strands of tragedy and comedy are finely teased out in this production. Guest actor Maria Kaczmarek is outstanding as the nanny Marina, milking her sparse dialogue for warmth and humour. Kristof Kakmarek, as the charismatic and overbearing patriarch Serebryakov, is a portrait in self-delusion. Olga Makeeva as Voinitsky’s mother oozes comic pathos, and Justin Hosking as the poor but happy landowner Telegin provides good-humoured relief.

It is unusual to see a classic performed at Red Stitch, and hopefully their choice of Uncle Vanya has nothing to do with recent funding cuts. Red Stitch tends to favour contemporary drama, but in this case the translator Baker’s own plays The Aliens and The Flick were previously performed by the company and also directed by Tass. It will be interesting to see what this first-rate company has planned for the coming year, when they launch their 2107 program next Monday.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov | a new version by Annie Baker
Directed by Nadia Tass

Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre | Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East VIC
Dates: 15 November – 17 December 2016
Tickets: $28 – 45
Bookings: redstitch.net

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