After almost four decades of screen and stage stardom, Rupert Everett has belatedly changed lanes recently, making his debut as both film and theater director. Having directed and starred as Oscar Wilde in last year’s The Happy Prince, he is now doing double duty again with this new version of Anton Chekhov’s melancholy 1898 classic Uncle Vanya. Everett plays the eponymous antihero, a boozy cynic grieving over a lifetime of squandered promise and thwarted passion as his 50th birthday looms. He has described the play as a farce, though this listless production plays it closer to low-voltage soap opera.
Everett is working with classy ingredients here, including a specially commissioned new adaptation of the text by veteran British playwright David Hare. The pair previously collaborated on an acclaimed 2012 revival of Hare’s The Judas Kiss, with Everett again playing Wilde, which earned warm reviews in London and New York.
But their shared chemistry proves less fruitful here, as Hare’s prosaic interpretation and Everett’s inert direction tease out little that’s new from Chekhov’s famously ambivalent state-of-the-nation drama about 19th century Russia’s indolent, self-pitying bourgeoisie. There is a subtlety and grace to this handsomely dressed production, but also a kind of starchy restraint that feels more timid than tasteful. Even with Everett’s fame and Hare’s track record, this short Bath premiere run is not guaranteed a London transfer.
Sporting a comically luxuriant Cossack mustache that is strangely absent from the play’s official poster image, Everett plays Vanya in a generously modulated performance that leaves room for the rest of his broad ensemble cast to shine. Signaling the character’s louche-ness from his first entrance, which features simulated urination and a drunken snooze, Everett conveys scathing ennui with ease. Later, as Vanya’s soul-weary mood sours into suicidal despair, he strikes a less convincing note. But even at a crinkly, craggy 60, he can still muster enough of his old matinee-idol twinkle to lend this sulky, sneering Vanya a faint aura of rumpled bohemian charm.
Vanya is self-appointed cynic-in-chief in a rambling, crumbling family house deep in the Russian countryside. Other guests, and targets for his scornful tirades, include aging professor Serebryakov (Michael Byrne), his alluring young second wife Yelena (Clemence Poesy), and his grown-up daughter from his first marriage, Sonya (Katherine Parkinson). Paralyzed by their unsatisfactory lives, these lost souls engage in futile attempts at seduction, pointless political diatribes and blazing arguments over plans to sell the house. Their purgatorial boredom seems poignant and bleakly funny at first, but soon it starts to feel like being trapped in no man’s land midway between Groundhog Day and Grey Gardens.
The most dynamic character in this swamp of creeping despair is the idealistic doctor Astrov (John Light), whose progressive ideals about saving the Russian landscape and people from extinction are tweaked by Hare for maximum contemporary eco-warrior resonance. Astrov initially appears to be the play’s voice of hope, but Chekhov ultimately burdens him with the same bitter disappointment as everybody else. Following an injury during rehearsals, Light plays the role on a crutch, which looks like a deliberate dramatic device and only makes his alert, punchy performance more compelling.
Hare’s innovations to the text are mostly subtle and cosmetic: trimming some of the monologues, adding a few modern colloquialisms to the dialogue and shifting the later events outside rather than inside. Only the latter decision yields strong dividends here as Everett and set designer Charles Quiggin pull off a neat 180-degree reversal of viewpoint midway through, replacing a vine-draped courtyard with a majestic video backdrop of undulating steppes and wide-open sky.
Such painterly touches lend this subdued production a much-needed frisson of visual poetry, but not enough to save it from inexorably sliding into the same kind of depressive slump as its protagonists. Despite Hare’s inquiring eye and Everett’s charisma, Chekhov’s most elusive drama continues to baffle and frustrate more than a century later.
Venue: Theatre Royal, Bath
Cast: Rupert Everett, Michael Byrne, Marty Cruickshank, John Light, Ann Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson, Clemence Poesy, John Standing
Director: Rupert Everett
Playwright: Anton Chekhov, adapted by David Hare
Set designer: Charles Quiggin
Costume designer: Fotini Dimou
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Sound designer: John Leonard
Presented by Bath Theatre Royal