Celebrities can be dangerous people.   Finding it difficult to fit in and work with others,  their talents inspire devotion,  their beauty desire,  their needs demand special attention, their vulnerabilities excite solicitude.  They invade the banal routines of others lives like the wind, blowing up dust, scattering leaves and shaking the very foundations of their existence.

Anton Chekhov is a master of the extended metaphor.   His plays express the inertia of provincial Russian life in the years before the revolution; a system in decline, stagnant, bored, devoid of meaning.  The dachas of the bourgeois resembled the Russian monarchical state; out of touch, resistant to change, with a God given right to rule the peasants.  But he was writing more than a century after the same systems had been replaced in Western Europe.  Imagine a society based on the rural intrigues of lady Catherine de Burgh in Edwardian England.  But change was taking place.  The peasants revolt in 1905 was suppressed with brutal ferocity, fuelling the resentment for revolution. Writers, artists, doctors, intellectuals were in the vanguard of this change, experimenting with new forms, espousing new ideas, critical of the way things are.

Uncle Vanya, the eponymous anti-hero of Chekhov’s drama, had devoted his life to running the estate for his brother, the intellectual, a Professor of Art in Petersburg.  He was assisted by his niece, Sonya, a plain girl who had long since given up an escape into marriage. They lived with the mother of the professor’s first wife, who doted on the great man, their housekeeper, the emotional heart of the house, and a simple kindly tenant farmer called Waffles, whose life has been devoted to the kind of mindless devotion that serves as duty.    

Enter the great man, played with petulant tyranny by Ronald Pickup, retired and stricken with gout and rheumatism, and his beautiful young wife, Yelena.  Their presence unsettles the monotony of working lives, disrupts their familiar routines.  His insomnia keeps everybody awake, his gout captures their anxiety.  Yelena disturbs them with her tragic beauty; like a princess imprisoned in a tower she seems to invite a declaration of love to rescue her.   

Vanya, played with desperate hysteria by Nicholas le Provost,  struts and postures.  He is furious with his self-obsessed brother-in-law, who, quite impervious to the feelings of others, wore his sister out and is draining the life from his second wife,  Elena.  Vanya is besotted by Yelena, whom he sees as wasting her life and beauty on the monster.

The doctor is summoned regularly to attend the great man but often dismissed without being seen.   Exhausted with the unmitigated despair of poverty, illness and death,  seeking oblivion in vodka, Doctor Astrov is none the less, a man of passion and vision, a symbol of life amid the inertia and decay that surrounds him. The potency of his enthusiasm breaking through the despair of his surroundings is eloquently captured by Neil Pearson.  Astrov tries to get Yelena to appreciate his passion for the forests, but she is bored.  But the doctor falls in love with this tragic boredom and wishes to release it.  Their embrace is observed by Vanya and drives him to despair. 

So when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate, Vanya cracks.  Hasn’t he devoted his life to the estate and supporting the reputation of the great man?  He tries to destroy his futile dependency by shooting his brother in law,  His misses, not once but twice.  It rather sums up his hopelessness; his tragic-comic ineptitude.  Of course, the great man doesn’t understand.  How could he?  He doesn’t  have the emotional capacity to see beyond his own grandiose obsessions.          

In the last scene, the professor dons his top hat and, head in the air, his wife decorously on his arm, leaves for the city.  The house breathes out.  The samovar is allowed to cool.  Sonya and Vanya catch up on the timeless routines of running the estate. Everything returns to normal, except that the futility of their provincial existence has been exposed forever.  Change is inevitable and long, long overdue.  And when the revolution comes, the shock will be nothing short of catastrophic.   

Uncle Vanya, directed by Sir Peter Hall, played at the Theatre Royal in Brighton during the week ending March 2nd .   

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