The play’s director, Ned Caderni, writes in a note to the audience, ‘Ian McKellen once said that young people shouldn’t ever play Vanya… oops’!
But despite ignoring the words of the actor who brings Gandalf’s wisdom alive, Inkwell’s adaption of an over-100-years-old Russian play thrives in this youthful cast and energy. Credit must be given to James Nash, who, with the mammoth task of having to grab the attention of a 21st Century audience, managed to massage out the flab from the original text and squeeze out the drama in this adaptation of Uncle Vanya.
The play makes clear that love is its main theme with focus on various types such as family, passionate and unrequited love, to name just a few. Vanya himself is a bitter middle age man who must compete against the younger and more successful Mikhail when attempting to win the affections of Yelena, who is in turn married to the elderly Alexander. Oh, and Sonya – Alexander’s daughter – also falls in love with Mikhail. While this has the making of a complicated love triangle (or is it a love pentagon if it’s between five people?) we are never in a state of confusion as to what is happening, thanks largely to the clear direction and emotive performances.
Everyone on stage is an important part of telling this story, regardless of the amount of time their scenes take; whether it be the brief appearances of the elderly Marina or Mikhail’s show stealing-performance, with which he oozes charisma and humour. Sonya is played with just the right amount of tragedy as we sympathise with her constant rejection at the hands of Mikhail, and Yelena (the antithesis of the ‘plain’ Sonya), who could have been easily portrayed as a cold, manipulative woman, is given a chance to show she does have a heart.
Alongside the modernisation of some aspects of Uncle Vanya, such as giving one character Waffles, a leather jacket and an acoustic guitar, we are treated to glimpses of film that break up the action. They do so with beautiful shots of the characters surrounded by landscapes and Russian subtitles, which remind us of the origin of the century-old play.
Inkwell manages to succeed in introducing an audience to this seminal play by focusing on its beating heart and coaxing moving performances out of its actors.