Julian Eaves reviews Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov, presented by Theatrical Niche Limited currently playing at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre.
New Wimbledon Studio
20th November 2019
It’s always exciting to see professionals taking the bull by the horns and setting up a project to get themselves out into the public eye. This is definitely the right thing to do, especially when (as seems to be the case with some actors here) they are trying to make a mark in the industry and get better known. However, some careful thought does need to be given to getting the right project to work on: while ‘classics’ are often chosen for this purpose, either because of their familiarity, or out of a belief that they are – in some sense – indestructible, such works are often also very demanding, and may contain many hidden pitfalls into which relative newcomers can all too easily stumble.
Sadly, that appears to be what may have happened in this case. Theatrical Niche Ltd are to be congratulated on receiving Arts Council funding for this airing of an abbreviated and simplified version of the play by Anton Chekov, in a reworking by Venetia Twigg, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou. For it, they have gathered together a cast of five actors at various stages in their careers. While it might have been helpful to pair them with more seasoned professionals, they are here somewhat ill-served by a fairly new creative team.
Nevertheless, one actor, David Tudor, has a fine voice, and it is a delight to make the discovery of his talent in this production. But he is let down by a production – and revision – that is unclear about where it wants to go and what it wants to be. In the important role of Sonia, Foxey Harman shows some potential: she holds the stage with natural ease and is particularly affecting in her ability to react to others – something that this kind of drama is all about. Unfortunately, the rest of the company are at a loss about what to do, and Twigg herself is remarkably wooden and lifeless as Yelena: she gives a performance that seems rooted in an entirely different style of drama, and it just doesn’t gel with the others, who give much solider, four-square renditions of their parts, readings which – to be honest – do rather feel like a ‘first reading’ in a rehearsal room, before a director has started to ‘get to grips’ with their vision for the production.
Touted as a ‘physical theatre’ production, there is – in fact – virtually nothing of that approach in the production. Aside from a couple of tokenistic moments – one in each half – which sit peculiarly uneasily in the presentation. As a whole, the reading of the play is remarkably conservative and traditional: costuming (by Rose Montgomery) hints within obvious budget constraints at ‘period’. However, that is not a view supported by the odd set design by Valentina Turtur of a pair of weirdly geometric arbours, nor by Amy Lawrence’s awkward ‘movement’.
Never mind. In theatre, things can go wrong. That shouldn’t deter one from doing better the next time around. In a future project, though, perhaps it might be a good idea for these younger artists to collaborate with some rather more practised colleagues, or to choose a less tricky text?