(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/6.)
It was Olivier's legendary production of this play 50 years ago that put the new Chichester theatre on the map, and there are times when Jeremy Herrin's production seems like an act of homage: Peter McKintosh's set matches exactly my memories of Sean Kenny's original. But any sense of piety is punctured by Roger Allam's shattering performance in the title role.
Allam's Vanya is, as Chekhov must have wished, a tragic buffoon. You see from the start the absurdity of a man who has slaved away for an academic brother-in-law he detests: emerging from a drunken slumber, a dazed Allam immediately collides with a door. And the comic aspects of Vanya are captured by the way he tries to hold in his slight paunch or lunges like a spaniel at the beautiful Yelena. But there is also real tragedy in this performance. In the great scene where Vanya rounds on the Professor, Allam almost unconsciously picks the petals off a bouquet of roses to symbolise his wasted life, and stutters helplessly when he cries "I could have been a Dostoevsky." In its interweaving of comedy and despair, this is the best Vanya since Michael Redgrave in 1962.