Perfect festival opener

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, translated by Michael Frayn at the Chichester Festival Minerva Theatre

WHAT better choice to open the summer season in the Festival Theatre’s 50th year than an echo of its birth?

Uncle Vanya was Laurence Olivier’s choice for the very first season – and in consequence it is not merely part of the cultural fabric of the building but the cement in its very foundations.

Like the first, this version glistens with star quality, not least because of the unassumingly powerful portrayal of Professor Serebryakov by Timothy West.

Indeed, the great strength of the performance rests with the performers – ranging from Dervla Kirwan and Lara Pulver to Roger Allam and Alexander Hanson as the doctor, the role Olivier made his own half a century ago.

For Vanya tests its cast with a sharp, ruthless and uncompromising spotlight.

It is not about plot, but people.

Its journey is wholly of the emotional type.

And joyful it is not.

There is a story which underpins it, of course.

An elderly professor and his beautiful, young second wife Yelena visit the rural estate which funds their life in the city.

He has a plan to sell the estate, invest the proceeds in stocks and shares, and derive a better income than the miserly two per cent return they currently receive.

But his scheme fails to take account of those members of the family who have devoted their lives to the estate to produce his income; who have ‘wasted’ their years there.

There are subtle undertones too. The doctor, charismatic and creative, is appalled at the way the forests have been torn up in 50 years to create an ecological wasteland.

It is not just the countryside that now lies wretched. Within the close confines of the estate, failed hopes of unrequited love lie scattered everywhere.

Written more than 100 years ago, Uncle Vanya is extraordinarily contemporary.

Today’s audience also grapples with the trials of two per cent returns on their historic investments; while the planet reels from the ecological disasters driven my man’s incessant material needs.

This faded and failing Russian estate could so easily represent the western economy.

But perhaps its themes are just a little too relevant and close to home. Vanya affords little hope as its players each struggle with their own unique wretchedness.

There is no warm glimmer – all darkness but no light.

As a production, this immaculate version is a triumph bringing full circle so many themes in the theatre’s 50th year.

But it is a tough emotional journey for the audience and not one that everyone will appreciate.

Gary Shipton