There's a strong sense of place and time and social context in Chekhov's plays which make them difficult to adapt convincingly to a modern setting. That's why I'm generally lukewarm about versions which transplant the plays to a different century and a different country. But Anya Reiss's adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the St James theatre meets this challenge head-on and succeeds.
This is the third Chekhov adaptation by this extremely gifted young playwright, after The Seagull and Three Sisters at Southwark Playhouse, both of which I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Reiss doesn't just use Chekhov as raw material; it's clear she has a lot of respect for the original text, while finding a 21st century setting. The first play took place on an isolated British island, standing in for the depths of the Russian countryside. The three sisters were transplanted to a British colonial outpost in the Middle East, while Vanya and Sonya find themselves managing a farm in Lincolnshire.
I don't think the farm ever becomes credible in the way that Chekhov's rural estate does in the original script, with its constant references to the peasantry, rapid social changes and ecological degradation, most of them observed through the eyes of Astrov the tree-hugging doctor. Chekhov's acute social observation of Russian society is inevitably lost in transit, and there isn't much to replace it. Lincolnshire is not a place of rural charm, and the backdrop to the set is wall of corrugated iron. The furniture is old and mismatched and this appears to be a household where everyone sits around doing nothing. That's fine in the Russian context, where the gentry had time to relax while the peasants did the work, but doesn't make much sense when the action takes place in Lincolnshire. Nor does it make plausible the fact that the farm has been used to subsidise the professor's urban income from his university job.
However, there are more than enough compensations in this well-acted production. Jack Shepherd is a memorable Serebryakov, the professor from hell who revels in his hypochondria. Director Russell Bolam adds some beautiful touches to the role; when Serebryakov complains from his armchair that it is too hot and asks for the window to be opened, he actually has a blanket over his knees. Amanda Hale as Sonya and Rebecca Night as the beautiful Yelena are excellent, and their change from hostility to friendship is marked by Yelena lending Sonya for Act Two the dress she has worn herself in Act One.
Joe Dixon is a powerful Astrov, conveying the right level of cynicism, but misses the character's slightly priggish pomposity on the subject of forestry and trees. And he turns the bibulous doctor into a drunk who can't keep his trousers up -- a piece of extended comic improvisation which I think the director should have stamped on. John Hannah plays Vanya as a clownish wreck from the start, which dilutes the impact of his mental collapse in the second half of the play when he tries and fails to shoot Serebryakov. This is a man who has already lost all shreds of dignity when the play opens, leaving him no space to fall further.
The play succeeds despite these partial flaws because the writer and the director have explored all the different relationships between the characters and developed them imaginatively. There's less subtext and more text than in the original Chekhov, with characters saying more openly what they feel; Reiss is a writer whose dialogue is a gift to actors, even where it embroiders Chekhov a little. What she avoids is the temptation to push the text into areas where it doesn't want to go.