Uncle Vanya is Rupert Everett’s first attempt at stage direction; also his first Chekhov as an actor (he plays the title role). Vanya is an unfulfilled man, only just squeezing a profit out of the family estate for the past 25 years. Now 50-ish, he is hopelessly infatuated with Yelena, the beautiful young wife of his late sister’s husband, a once feted, now retired professor, come to live on the estate for reasons of economy. Vanya’s helpmate, his niece Sonya (the professor’s daughter), is also hopelessly in love – with an occasional visitor, the district doctor Astrov. Astrov, like Vanya, is a frustrated character. Overwhelmed by the impossibility of tending the needs of the peasants, he finds solace in reforesting the area to save its ecology for future generations. He, too, is hopelessly in love, also with Yelena.
As so often in Chekhov, this appears to be a play about a privileged section of society in late 19th-century Russia. But Chekhov, although famously associated with the naturalists, is also a symbolist writer, exploring universal inner realities. Everett’s direction sensitively develops this aspect of the drama. His period production slowly builds up a sense of human experience as part of the cycle of nature. Real-world sounds instil a feeling of place: owls hoot, crickets chirrup, thunder crashes. The play of light creates an impression of diurnal time and the passing of the seasons. Charles Quiggin’s set suggests the permeability of nature and human life, especially in the opening scenes where the impression is of an outdoors that is also an indoors, with leaves draping the walls of the family house outside of which furniture is set on carpets as in a drawing room. Later, the back wall will disappear and an interior will merge with a seemingly endless, mist-shrouded vista.
Another (notoriously tricky) aspect of Chekhov’s plays that Everett – as actor and director – gets just right is the humour. He is aided in this by David Hare’s sharp adaptation and by the beautifully pitched and perfectly timed performances of his ensemble cast (special mention to Katherine Parkinson’s Sonya and the injured John Light, incorporating a crutch into his performance as Astrov). Situations and lines are laugh-aloud funny – segueing seamlessly into tears, anger and despair; as much a part of life as birdsong and snow. On the evidence of this production, Everett and Chekhov are made for one another.
The setting of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out is also historical: Lancashire, 1811-12, time of trouble at the mills (the play is subtitled Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion). The treatment, however, is contemporary. Moving on and about the raised scarlet platform that dominates the centre of the Royal Exchange’s theatre-in-the round, actors in modern dress deploy microphones like wizards’ wands, conjuring sounds to swirl around the stage (Pete Malkin’s sound design). Rhythmically percussive clangs and clatters shape relentless factory looms (“You may tire but they never do”); sliverings of tinkling glass “show” us shattering windows and chandeliers in the Royal Exchange’s dining rooms during a protest (a site-specific moment).
This adroit use of technology to illustrate the story of people mainly remembered as machine-wreckers is just one striking feature of this devised show, created by James Yeatman, Lauren Mooney and members of the company (seven quicksilver performers). With sound and lights creating scenery and atmosphere, the visual emphasis is always on the human body (movement evokes images, including, harrowingly, a worker trapped in a machine). The action connects disparate classes and individuals: mill workers unionising and taking action; an informer-agitator; the colonel who unleashes soldiers against protesters; a pseudo-reformist factory owner; the dissipated Prince Regent and his partying entourage; Ludd, mythic figure of encouragement to the workers and threat to the establishment. Documentary sources, threaded together, provide multiple, contrasting viewpoints (“lower classes” to one observer are “workers” to another).
Events shuttle machine-fast through time and space (sometimes too fast for comprehension). Little by little, people, places and situations patchwork into drama. In the process, we start to thread links between then and now. Some of the luddites’ aims we thought were achieved – fair pay, decent hours, the right to unionise – but, as a programme note points out, these same aims are still “being advocated by Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers and Amazon ‘associates’”.
Malory Towers is a fictional boarding school for girls, the setting for a series of six novels launched by Enid Blyton in 1946. Her tales about the pupils who pass through this converted Cornish castle have been read and loved by generations of (mainly) girls (myself included). Their “jolly hockey sticks” tone, though, has been disliked and derided by almost as many, who feel her stories are based on, and endorse, elitism and privilege.
Emma Rice’s adaptation (which she also directs) opens in a contemporary school where unsupervised pupils bully a girl for reading Malory Towers. Knocked unconscious, the youngster dreams herself boarding a train at Paddington station and becoming, in the words of the school song, “One of the lucky girls to have the chance / To grow at Malory Towers”. The framing device sets up a (to me, jarring) contrast between what is open to these “lucky” few and what is available to the many.
As in Blyton’s books, the values Rice praises are powerfully expressed through friendships, conflicts and cliffhanger adventures (shadow projections on to the back of the set add to the thrills). Izuka Hoyle’s fiery Darrell must rein in her temper; Sally (the ever-excellent Francesca Mills) must let go of her need to control. All come to realise they should have tried to understand why Rebecca Collingwood’s deliciously dislikable Gwen has been behaving so badly.
Live musical accompaniment – performed by the actors and pianist Stephanie Hockley – lends atmosphere to events but song-and-dance numbers do little more than pad out the evening, while the concluding excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels worthy but dull. The interactions among the girls are Blyton’s and Rice’s strength: simple characters in clear situations clear with a strong moral message: enlightened education helps create “women that the world can lean on”.
Star ratings (out of five)
Uncle Vanya ★★★★
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out ★★★★
Malory Towers ★★★