Brian Friel's adaptation of Uncle Vanya

Writing in the late 19th century, Anton Chekhov's entire breadth of work absorbs the fundamentals of the Russian gentrified class's imperialist condition. Regularly creating a portrait of country life outside the populist urban cities his plays formed a type of social diary of the period as he consistently infused his narrative with themes like the declination of aristocratic society, financial difficulties on rural estates, and the overall effects of these twin themes on the family as a whole. Chekhov, in this fashion, is constantly compared with Henrik Ibsen who wrote along similar themes and within a relevant period – where they both broadly essayed the familial struggle and the explosive situations which could occur when events brought forth such a dynamic on ordinary lives. It is this theme in Chekhov's writing which makes it so pertinent in the modern world, pressure of status and condition upon a family is familiar to every audience, and is why his works are still over a century later regularly produced right throughout the world. Not least in Ireland where this is the second such production in a year.
The Gate Theatre's current production of Uncle Vanya showcases a traditional version of the play, opting for an uncomplicated minimalist set of which very little changes right through the dramas four acts. The foreground jostles from the estates garden dining area to the in-house parlour, with the picturesque background remaining a stark wooden copse, which the director, Robin Lefèvre, brilliantly stages as a noticeable compressing force upon the actors, highlighting the bleak isolation that inflicts the two central characters, Vanya (Owen Roe) and his niece Sonya (Cathy Belton). The major theme of the play is caught up in their long endured struggle to manage the sprawling rural estate they have lived on their whole lives. Sonya's father, the professor Serebryakov (John Kavanagh), has returned to the estate (due to illness) after many years living in Moscow, where he was supported by an income derived from Vanya and Sonya who toiled specifically to finance his aristocratic lifestyle. The professor's return sets into motion conflicts that were long over-due realisation and force Vanya in particular to face up to his life choices, however disturbing the consequences.

The acting talent, as is common with Gate productions, marvel upon the stage. Roe and Belton hold together the major thematic strand well, under the constant niggling of other character-embodied subject matter, namely Astroff (Anthony Calf), the doctor, turbulent in his ingenious woodland thesis; and Ilia Telegin's (Tom Hickey) humorous German preoccupations. Likewise, Catherine Walker shines as Helena, Serebryakov's young and beautiful wife, the central focus of virtually the whole male cast. Walker glides across the stage immersing Helena in a cloak of melancholy, befuddled by the enraptured Vanya and Astroff who live for her every word. The only tinge on this excellent selection of performances is the evident deviance from Chekhov's intent by Calf with a darker, more intensive Astroff. Having said that it is the very lightest of blemishes, on an otherwise superior casting.

This version of Uncle Vanya is Brian Friel's second such classical rendition in recent times. As with the first, Friel brings a lyrical dexterity to the play, eliciting beautifully the rural setting and the devastating emotional conflicts of the narrative – but at all times maintaining that classic Chekhovian eloquence. Uncle Vanya contains, like much of Chekhov's work, a very simple timeless reality, which is unchanged regardless of the period or its audience, portraying the dynamic struggle of the individual and family against the burdensome difficulties of life, love and station. Drama at its finest.