December 01, 1996

Chekhov, Too

(Uncle) Vanya
by Howard Barker

Brink Productions
Red Shed

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Howard Barker’s version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is not so much deconstruction as detonation. He has taken one of the great plays of the modern era and turned it into intertextual terrorism. Not since Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead ( or Barker’s own Women Beware Women) has a play so successfully roosted under the roof of another. But unlike Stoppard’s hit, Barker’s Vanya is no elliptical whimsy. It is as black as an undertaker’s boots.

Curiously, though, it is exhilarating in its dark energy. “I remade Vanya because I loved his anger, which Chekhov allows to dissipate in toxic resentment. In doing this I denied the misery of the Chekhovian world, where love falters in self-loathing and desire in petulance.” So says Barker in his own introduction to the text- and then he proceeds to put the play to radical re-reading.

Many would say that it is the essence of Chekhov that his characters slump beside the samovar waiting for their fortunes to change. Their paralysis, like Joyce’s Dubliners, defines them. They also say that this is a portrait of a doomed class, the petty Tsarists waiting for the terrible swift sickle of 1917. Certainly the lethargy and regret, the longing and ennui of Vanya- if it is not its tragedy- then it is its comedy and absurdity. When Vanya goes for Serebryakov with his pistol in Act Three it is as startling as it is unlikely- and in Chekhov’s drama things subside even more into futility as a result of this one quixotic action.

When Barker’s Vanya gets wind that Serebryakov plans to sell the farm and move to Finland he promptly murders him. Asked where he got the gun from, he says Chekhov gave it to him. Sonya, unlike the long-suffering passive in the original, also strikes back. She can’t bear Astrov being so pusillanimous, so she throttles him. This is better than knitting, she exults. The two dead characters sit about on the stage while the various characters from Chekhov’s original finally get a bit of gumption. The servants rebel, although Telyeghin is uneasy about it all. Vanya- “call me Ivan”- briefly gets the girl, the lovely, idle Helena, and Sonya goes about declaiming class theory and flexing her strong arms. All is looking decidedly up -until a drowning man is washed up from an ocean that previously didn’t exist. He is pale and bearded and wants things back in line. He introduces himself and Vanya’s face collapes into despair. His name is Anton Chekhov.

Brink Productions, formerly Blueprint, have presented their second Barker play in less than a year and it is excellent work. Imogen Thomas creates a witty decor for a palimpsest text. Across the creamy walls are lines of calligraphy while a series of upturned pencils double as deadly looking skewers. The cast, in Edwardian costume made from pale, almost translucent chintz with smudges of ink at their hems and cuffs, look like the pallid figures from one of Edvard Munch’s airless interiors, a sickroom or some scene of sexual hysteria.

Syd Brisbane’s Vanya is unaccommodated man, his head shaven like some prisoner of the gulag, his face anaemic and eyes red-rimmed. Brisbane’s fine performance drives the work, his hapless anger leading to manic violence and sexual triumph. His Vanya struggles against both his literary and ‘actual’ destiny, his victories hollow, his only decisive actions turn out to be crimes.

Michaela Cantwell is imaginative and shrewdly comic as Sonya and Colleen Cross explores the complexities of Maryia, betrayer of Vanya and ally of Serebryakov, with considerable subtlety. Victoria Hill carries the magnetic focus as Helena and David Mealor and Lizzie Falkland, as the old retainers, give good opportunity for Barker’s ironies. John Molloy’s Serebryakov, deliberately ponderous, could be less mannered, Paul Moore is an interestingly flighty Astrov and Richard Kelly gives Chekhov a raffish charm and a touching death scene.

The cast, as ensemble, performs well, the youth of the players only lending to the irony- of a cultural impasse masquerading as mid-life crisis. Director Tim Maddock has done well to bring the text into such lucid integration. The pace carries the satire and the elegance of the decor, and Justin Pennington’s lighting, makes the production a theatrical pleasure.

Barker’s play, as ever, has disturbing themes about the nature and energy of violence. But it is the intelligence of this production that it takes these discourses to the brink, so to speak, while retaining the idea that all our actions are still choices and our instincts are never wholly ungovernable. Don’t miss this Vanya. You don’t need to know the original- but it helps richly if you do. This production plays at Belvoir Street early next year. Sydney is in for a treat.

The Adelaide Review, December 1996.

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