There is a consensus among the Merton Floats players that this staging of Chekov’s comedy/tragedy should be, above all, funny. Meg Bartlett, the director, took it upon herself to synthesise a new translation of the play that suited this vision.
Fundamentally, Merton’s take on Vanya is that it is too often misconceived as exclusively miserable, when it has a real comic side. There is no doubting this is an ambitious project, but does it work?
Certainly the Merton actors are able to bring out the melancholy side. Tim Smith-Laing is wonderful as the eponymous Vanya: he even looks a bit Russian. Smith-Laing starts off un-naturalistic, but very soon starts to convey an increasingly believable sense of desolation, until he seems truly immersed in despair.
Sonia (Lizzie Hunter) does very well at conveying unrequited love, worrying about her ‘plainness’ and obsessing over Dr. Astrov – depressing watching. Yeliena (Meredith Kerr) is truly fantastic. She conveys elegance but also an ineffable sadness, a quiet resignation, which is both immersive and compelling. She finessed the role brilliantly; her performance is such a tangle of conflicting emotions – a excellent actress for this part.
So the play is sad. But is it funny? The Mertonites (and potential audience) will be pleased to learn now that as well as all this misery, the humour of the play is successfully brought out. Gout-ridden Serebriakov gives off a David Mitchell effect, making his scenes feel like a 19th century Russian Peep Show, with a darkly compelling voyeurism and humorous atmosphere.
The standout mixture of comic/tragic is Astrov (Bevil Luck), who can veer from the comic drunk, which he plays brilliantly (“I have flans for the future – plans for the future…”) to depressive and disaffected: two character types which should be all too familiar to Oxford students. When Astrov moans about his shallow friends and his intellectual contemporaries (they’re hypochondriacs, they self-analyse, they’re introspective) it hits close to home.
In all, Meg Bartlett and the Merton players have achieved what they set out to do, and this is an admirable achievement. Not all is perfect: the actors are hard to hear at times and occasionally there was a tendency to either gabble or face away from the audience, meaning whole lines were lost to the birds.
In spite of this, though, Merton Floats will certainly be able to float this well-conceived interpretation on the Oxford play market.
Buy, buy, buy.