Prepare yourself for an immersive experience in the Emlyn Williams Theatre as Uncle Vanya kicks off Theatr Clwyd’s Autumn season. Having experienced the wonderful space known as the Roundabout Theatre earlier in the summer, it was a pleasant surprise to walk into something very similar here. However, whereas the Roundabout relied simply on the cast and audience imagination, the design wizards at Theatr Clwyd, led by Lucy Osbourne, have produced some spectacular scenery, enhancing the audience experience further. Walking in through the entrance, it is like Alice Through the Looking Glass. You are stepping into another world, almost literally, as you make your way across the fairly detailed set to your seat, a magnificent tree branch overarching through the roof above. It really is something to behold. The atmosphere before curtain up only added to the anticipation. There was a certain buzz around the place. Like never before have I known this place to feel so alive.
I believe that director Tamara Harvey has made a very inspired decision in performing Uncle Vanya ‘in the round’. Throughout the play, the close proximity to the audience of the actors made for an intensity of drama and emotion that would not have been so keenly felt in a proscenium. It was, in some ways, a unique experience to witness the faces of these characters so closely and to see their emotions clearly. Even now, a day later, as I am writing this, I can’t believe that my memory is able to evoke Oliver Dinsdale (Astrov) in such detailed fashion. Was he really that close to me? Yes, and what a difference that familiarity makes, not only in the moment but in the recollection too.
It truly is an evocative experience. Being ‘in the round’ helps enormously to achieve this, but it is also enhanced in a number of ways. Firstly, the costumes are of such fine and exquisite detail, perfectly suited to the period in which Vanya is set. The props only compliment this further, to the extent that it often feels like you are watching through a lens, filming, with your own eyes, a television drama. The most beautiful piece on display is the map that Astrov (Dinsdale) rolls out across the dining room table. Its colours are so striking, so meticulously drawn, the sense of realism is startling. Osbourne and her team deserve a standing ovation for their work, never mind a round of applause.
This magnificent set would be nothing though without a group of actors to bring it to life. Leading the cast is Jamie Ballard as the depressed and downtrodden, yet very humorous, Vanya. Ballard injects much regret into his character that teases itself out in playful pessimism and childish boredom. It is so easy to fall for him as a character. His well-thought out arguments, witticisms and acute personal observations make him a very likable person. Ballard reminds me very much of Tom Hollander in the way that he fully embodies his character. He is not just playing Vanya here. He is Vanya. Whereas some productions would struggle to fill the void left by such a fine performance onstage, there is no danger of that here. When Ballard is absent, it is not particularly noticeable. This is testament not only to the quality of Peter Gill’s script, but to the supporting cast as well. In particular, I would like to pick out Rosie Sheehy whose performance, as Sonja, was achingly beautiful. You could not only see the unhappiness etched on her face, it was possible to feel it too such was the intensity of her presentation. To communicate so affectingly reveals the strength of her acting skill. She was simply superb.
Uncle Vanya has certainly left its mark on me. It is an experience that will stay with me for a while yet, I’m sure. It shows that this production is an affecting piece of theatre, and its immersive set and talented cast only serve to make it so. Tamara Harvey has delivered on many levels, taking Anton Chekhov’s original work and producing something fresh that does not feel over a century old. She has also helped cement ‘in the round’ as my preferred style for performance theatre. Uncle Vanya is definitely worth checking out.