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REVIEW | UNCLE VANYA AT THE ORANGE TREE THEATRE

"Simultaneously urgent and beautiful, Trevor Nunn’s Uncle Vanya promises a lot – and delivers." writes Fetch theatre critic Paige Bruton.

Andrew Richardson (Astrov) and James Lance (Vanya) in Uncle Vanya. photography by Manuel Harlan.


Deep in the provincial countryside, Professor Serebryakov (William Chubb) has returned to the dilapidated estate of his now-dead first wife. Since his retirement, he’s been living on the restless and yet stagnant grounds, a place he refers to as “a different planet” compared to his life as a garlanded academic in the city. For Elena (Lily Sacofsky), his beautiful second wife who is also thirty years his junior, both the estate is “alien,” as well as her own role in her marriage and within Serebryakov’s family, and she spends her days endlessly idle and lonely. 


Yet – despite their desire for escape – both characters are reliant on the land for their income: Vanya (James Lance), once Serebryakov’s brother-in-law, and Sonya (Madeleine Gray), Serebryakov’s daughter to his previous marriage, along with a host of misfits, have been toiling the land for Serebryakov’s benefit. In a clash of families and competing feelings of misery, missed opportunity and desire, a storm cloud gathers in the country household. The events that unfold through the rest of the play speak to the embodied condition of humanity and its relationship with time and space.


Trevor Nunn’s production at the Orange Tree Theatre perfectly demonstrates what makes Chekhov’s classic a masterpiece: feelings of desperation and hopelessness permeate the set, seeming to waft straight from the disheveled – and staple – dressing gown of Vanya, like a stale yawn. In contrast to the oppressive ennui experienced by the characters, the performances were anything but. James Lance’s Vanya was uniquely hilarious, finely balancing a misery that we pity, and a bitching jealousy that endears us. He manages to create an Uncle Vanya that is everyone’s “that uncle” – beloved, despite never managing to hold his tongue. 


Madeline Gray’s Sonya was by-far the stand-out performance of the night, producing an earnestness and hopefulness that cut through the apathy of rest of the aging and ailing characters in the play. Gray’s Sonya morphs into a younger sister, delivering lines with such sweetness (“I know I am not beautiful”) that they will break anyone’s heart, and few eyes were dry in the audience by the end of the play.  


Chekhov’s brilliance also proved itself more pertinent with time: Dr. Astrov (Andrew Richardson) and Sonya’s monologues about the preservation of forests are truly a remarkable dedication to the importance of nature. Using what seem to be feminist criticisms of Christian ideas of dominion over both land and women, Chekov encapsulates in Uncle Vanya why environmentalism must be intersectional, almost a hundred years before the term was coined. 


A production that will both amuse and enthrall, Nunn’s Uncle Vanya spectacularly demonstrates what Chekhov has to offer to a 21st century audience. 


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