OK, let’s get the headline out of the way first – Jamie Ballard is simply extraordinary in (and as) Uncle Vanya. Voted by the Guardian as one of the “ten best Hamlets ever”, Ballard is an absolute revelation as a man whose entire life has been dictated to and shaped by other people’s, whether it be the death of his sister, an unrequited love, or his supercilious brother-in-law. Vanya is one of life’s great losers, and Jamie Ballard not so much plays the part as inhabits it.
One of the biggest problems some people have with theatre is the suspension of belief. When you watch a film or TV drama, you already know subconsciously that none of it is real, and you accept that, because you’re watching these people on an oblong flatscreen several feet in front of you, like a window into a universe of fiction. But when you’re at the theatre, sitting just feet away from a live action performance, you’re being asked to believe that the drama is really happening right in front of you, as in life, and that can be harder for some people to swallow. Sometimes, audiences treat it as a challenge – “Convince me!” they smirk. “Convince me that you’re really in that three-walled kitchen and feeling suicidal!”
The magic of live theatre is when the audience is utterly convinced that what they’re witnessing is real, when they are duped into accepting the facts of the fiction before them because the talent and experience behind it is just too damn good. Achieving verisimilitude is a constant ambition for theatre makers, and director Tamara Harvey achieves it in spades in Theatr Clwyd’s Uncle Vanya.
Much of this is down to the cast, because, performed in the round, there’s not much by way of scene-setting. Lucy Osborne paints impressions of locations judiciously, with a garden swing, a rug and cushions, an armchair or a kitchen table. One of the greatest achievements of the production is hiding in plain sight, as ever, in Ric Mountjoy’s sumptuous but subtle lighting – at times as gorgeous as a Dutch Master’s painting, more illumination than lighting.
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is not so much a story as a situation, and that situation takes a bit of getting your head round if you’ve not done your homework beforehand. It’s not instantly obvious who is who, and what they are to one another, but over time, and through well-placed dialogue, the connections come into sharper focus.
The situation is this: retired university professor Aleksandr Serebryakov and his young (and second) wife Elena have been living in the city for some years, but when cash gets tight they decide to visit their country estate to see if they can settle there. The estate is managed by Vanya, Serebryakov’s brother-in-law from his first marriage to the late Vera, and is joined there by Sonya (Serebryakov’s daughter by his first marriage, and so Vanya’s niece), and staff Telyegin and Marina.
Oliver Dimsdale and Jamie Ballard
And that’s the set-up. It’s involved, but there’s plenty of time to pick it up, because by and large, nothing of any great import happens in Act 1. Chekhov’s play is much more about what people are saying and feeling than any great incident or trigger point. However, when the trigger point comes in Act 2 – when Serebryakov suggests selling the estate to fund his life back in the city – the play escalates into an explosion of raw emotion and ill-feeling which leaves the audience breathless.
Jamie Ballard’s performance is so viscerally modern that at times it feels like Vanya is a character from a different play completely. Ballard is not acting or performing or pretending. He simply is Vanya, he inhabits the character, or it possesses him. It’s obvious Ballard has totally immersed himself in Vanya’s condition, and as a result he gives a performance which is both startling in its freshness, and daunting in its depth. During the course of the play’s run, there is no Jamie Ballard. There is only Vanya. It’s extraordinary to witness an actor completely become another person, rather than interpret a playwright’s portrayal.
Vanya is a complex character. On the outside he is playful, boyish, a Puckish tease. On the surface he wouldn’t seem to have a care in the world. But scratch the veneer and there’s plenty more creeping below the surface – an unrequited love for Serebryakov’s second wife, who frustrates him with her unambitious, unthinking, effortless existence. He still mourns the death of his beloved sister 11 years ago, so much so that he has visions of her when he’s drunk. His selfless management of Aleksandr’s estate, and utter devotion to and respect for the academically revered professor, has led to an insidious erosion of his confidence. Vanya is an intelligent man, but his intelligence is dampened and kept in check by his sedate rural lifestyle. As he repeatedly states, he is 47 years old and what has he really achieved for himself?
There are several themes running through Chekhov’s work, including boredom and stagnation. Vanya’s fear and awareness of ageing is another, and this is reflected in how family friend Astrov (the local doctor) feels he has also allowed his life to fly by without real achievement. His passion for the environment – his globalist outlook – is thunderously modern, despite being written by Chekhov almost 120 years ago, long before the greenhouse effect, overpopulation and deforestation were current affairs. Astrov sees the felling of Russia’s forests as a catastrophe for the environment and its wildlife, and foresees a time when the damage to Mother Earth will have gone too far. Astrov is talking in 1898, but what he has to say is fiercely relevant – more so – in 2017. Oliver Dimsdale is mesmerising during the scenes when Astrov presses his environmentalist points, coming over as utterly convincing of this deep-seated passion.
Young Sonya is also stagnating, trapped in her unreciprocated love for Astrov, unable to move past his refusal to let her in. Astrov is a sad and self-pitying drunk, not at all the right partner for the vivacious but sensible Sonya, but nevertheless Rosie Sheehy manages to convince the audience that they would be so right together. Sonya is also held back by her opinion that she is plain, a point which leads to one of the play’s biggest laughs when her mother-in-law Elena replies: “Yes, but you have beautiful hair!”
The theme of stagnation comes full circle at the end of the play when everything returns to how it was at the beginning. Chekhov hits the “reset” button, and every character returns to how they were before. There’s a rule in storytelling that no character should be unchanged by the events of the story, but Chekhov cleverly plays with this conceit – the characters may not have changed physically or geographically, but the explosive truths that come out during the play have forever changed the way they think, even if they are still going through the old motions. Vanya and Sonya will continue to run the estate with Marina and Telyegin, as before, and continue to send money to Serebryakov in the city to fund his privileged life of high-brow arts journalism and academia.
Martin Turner gives Serebryakov the requisite grouchiness of a privileged man who looks down on most around him, and in particular the country folk who fuel his city lifestyle. The professor is not a likeable man, forever moaning about his gout (or is it rheumatism?), always courting attention and sympathy from others, expecting respect and being outraged when it’s not forthcoming. After he drops the bombshell that he intends to sell the estate, he stands imperiously over the scene, in an angelic white linen suit and sporting the wiry beard of a learned man. Turner gives the professor a haughty detachment that instantly makes him the boo-hiss villain, despite Harvey essentially depicting him as God.
Shanaya Rafaat sometime struggles with the realism which some of the other cast bring, falling into removed recital when she could perhaps feel the moment a little more. But when she gets her monologue, where we learn what characters are really thinking and feeling as opposed to what they’re saying out loud, she shines much brighter, giving Elena a feisty side sometimes absent elsewhere. Brendan Charleson and Veronica Roberts provide great light relief as the dedicated estate staff, while Sharon Morgan has the thankless role of the largely mute matriarch Mariya, who is a mother to Vanya in name only. When she tells her clearly distraught son to “listen to Aleksandr”, you just want to slap her and tell her to give Vanya a motherly hug!
The unchallenged star of the play though is Jamie Ballard as Vanya, whose ever-surprising delivery can catapult effortlessly from a level measure to a jack-in-the-box flourish without trying. With the appearance of a vagabond, with his tousled hair and shambolic dress sense, he initially comes over as a likeable buffoon who takes little seriously, but that soon changes when cuckoos invade his nest.
When Serebryakov suggests selling the estate, Vanya’s disintegration begins as a slow crumble, like wisps of dust from the ceiling during an earth tremor. But then the dam bursts, and Ballard explodes with an emotional fury which puts the entire stage on the back foot as he spouts long-suppressed truths and gives voice to his innermost feelings. It’s heartbreaking to watch as Vanya breaks down, becoming an emotionally smudged mess while those around him reel at his intensity. It’s during this scene that Vanya goes from perfectly nice but slightly irritating, to a fully-rounded tortured soul that you can’t help but side with instantly. The sheer unfairness of what Serebryakov suggests wounds the audience as well as the characters.
The layers in Chekhov’s play could keep me writing for hours, and others have and will do that much better. But what’s striking about Theatr Clwyd’s production is how Peter Gill has adapted the stagy, heavy, almost unsayable 19th century dialogue into a very modern, but not jarring play for these times. At some point during this play, someone will say something that you yourself will utterly believe in, and agree with. Uncle Vanya may be about class division in 20th century Russia, but it speaks clearly both to and about today, and most unnervingly of all, it warns us of tomorrows to come…
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, from September 21st to October 14th, 2017. Co-production with Sheffield Theatres.