I'm a trainee journalist living in London. A personal blog is forthcoming.
Chekhov it out
On Camden Park Road there is a little pub called The Lord Stanley, which you will be visiting soon.
Chekhov's Uncle Vanya by Theatre Collection. Image from theatrecollection.net
Like many pubs in the artistic bohemia that is the Camden/Islington area, The Lord Stanley has a theatre upstairs, accommodating pop up productions from various theatre groups, writers, directors and actors on a regular basis. Currently residing in its cosy interior is a production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, put together by The Theatre Collection theatre company.
An intimate play for an intimate setting, Uncle Vanya follows the events of a struggling family as they each bemoan the meaningless existence they endure daily.
Family Conflict. Image offered up from Theatre Collection's Facebook page
Vanya (portrayed in this production by Matthew Eades) has spent the best part of his life running the rural estate his brother-in-law, a retired Professor (Lucien Morgan) once respected for his great works, inherited from his first wife; Vanya's deceased sister. Despite Vanya's seemingly endless toil, the estate can no longer support the Professor's cultured urban lifestyle and so he and his new wife Yeléna (Flaviana Cruz) have returned to the provincial manor for the foreseeable future. Due to the Professor's ill health, Mikhail Lvovich Astrov (Trevor Murphy), a local doctor and family friend, is also a frequent visitor, much to the delight of the Professor's daughter from his first marriage, Sonya (Emma Whittaker), a down-to-earth girl who helps Vanya to manage the property.
As can be expected from a long-term gathering of extended family, conflicts soon reach a climax as Vanya and Astrov both fall for the captivating Yeléna, whose selfish idleness is infectious throughout the household, Sonya realises that she is plain (although Emma Whittaker is not, so it may be more of a state of mind for this production), which she feels takes away her entitlement to be loved, and the Professor threatens to sell the estate so that he can afford to return to his real life in the city, which will reduce Vanya and Sonya's life-long efforts to nothing and leave them penniless.
Chekhov's Gun. Image offered up from Theatre Collection's Facebook page
While the content may seem quite melancholy, the experience of this play is an uplifting one, as Chekhov's tragi-comic expression of endurance, wasted time, diminished expectations, the search for happiness and meaning in this life, and the ultimate hell of being responsible for your family – and in their company for months on end no less – is brought to life by Victor Sobchak's thoughtful direction and a fantastically talented cast.
Due to the nature of smaller productions, with limited set, lighting and costume options available, the challenge of transporting the audience to the world of the writer's vision is greater than in larger shows, where they might find some respite behind bright lights and the silhouetted faces of a full auditorium. It would take me forever to commend this cast individually as each member brought something identifiably touching to their role, ensuring the audience's greatest struggle; deciding who to root for when the characters are all so recognisable within ourselves.
I will say that I found Matthew Eades' Vanya heartbreakingly funny, particularly leading up to the climax of the show, and must give a hand to Lee Clotworthy (who plays the hopelessly hopeful Telegin) for learning to sing in Russian and play the guitar in the three weeks the cast had to rehearse.
Music plays a large part in the atmosphere of the play, sometimes even through its absence, and I found the guitar added significant mood and tension in the first act. Uncle Vanya translates well to English, with no obscure cultural clashes, so Sobchak's decision to utilise Russian music throughout gave the play an authentic feel that may have otherwise been lost.
The simplicity of the set, laid out to resemble a drawing room on the estate with two entry points, both stage right, did allow a sharp focus on Chekhov's words and was enhanced by some creative lighting that (although it was sometimes slow to react) effectively showed the passing of time and therefore the lengthy confinement to the situation that the characters faced together.
This is the first of Chekhov's works that I've come into contact with but it really spoke to me, with themes that capture the heart and imagination with all their tragic honesty. No stranger to hardship and endurance, his writing is full of prominent pain and struggle, which is easily accessible through juxtaposed humour and dialogue that is capable of outlining the dark truths of the world in a single statement. The wonderful Trevor Murphy, who plays the desperately philosophical Dr. Astrov told me after the show that Chekhov's plays are so good he would travel far and wide to have the chance to be in one.
As Trevor and the other actors are willing to cart their talent round the country to bring us the very best of theatre history I think we owe it to them to check out what all their hard work has achieved. Uncle Vanya will be playing at The Lord Stanley until Sunday 9th June (my birthday!). You can buy your tickets online here or by texting 07966597190.
The pub itself is a pleasant place to spend an evening, with plenty of outside seating - including a "secret" beer garden - and reasonably priced drinks. Just a short walk from Kentish Town, Camden Town and Camden Road stations, it's easily accessible and has great staff and atmosphere.