Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The Bedlam plays host to Theatre Movement Bazaar’s outstanding adaptation of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya. Wonderfully realised, this is a remarkable hour of physical theatre.
In a very physical, affecting and regularly humorous adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Theatre Movement Bazaar set out before us a breathtaking theatrical journey, drawing on the original text and adding in plenty of their own words and bold interpretation. It’s a remix, a homage and, most of all, thoroughly engaging work. Four men remain from the original play’s roll call, struggling with their desires, their hopes and their fears, trying to draw together the often bewildering threads of their biographies. The stories of each are separate and yet they are bound together, with a sometimes frustrating sense of inseparability. Wretchedly content in places, deeply dissatisfied in others, these four are eloquent after-dinner speakers at the banquet of their own pain.
Physical theatre is at the core of this production, delivered with masterclass skill. Yet there is also much knockabout dialogue, occasional powerful monologue, and plenty of well chosen music. The physicality is sometimes crisper and tighter than the dialogue but that physicality is always a visual feast. It’s all so well studied, the humour serves the piece, though possibly the narrative could be made a little more accessible.
Here is an outstanding ensemble performance. The precision is often part of the spectacle, the humour is diverse, combining visual comedy with some witty one liners and dynamics between the four men. There’s particularly novel employment of stage crew, integrating them into the piece, physically, occasionally verbally, and even musically. The surreality of that selective, lateral breaking of that fourth wall is pulled off with skilled comedy, succeeding when it could so easily have appeared forced and even clumsy.
All four performers bring both unique character mood and well observed personal qualities to the piece but their coherence as an ensemble cast matches the well drawn out individual character essences. These are fine physical, vocal and musical artists and, as already mentioned, only occasionally does the dialogue run a little behind the quality of the physical set pieces.
Another outstanding aspect of this production is the modulation of pace and the use of silence and stillness. These actors know how to create the silence of expectation and come-down, even a split second after some clearly exerting physical work. It allows pace to switch in the blink of an eye and for mood to swing as suddenly. Rare theatre indeed.
A notable, uncredited character in this homage to Chekhov, is the music. The glockenspiel is a mood creating, comedy-enhancing player in its own right and here we have an exemplar of how to weave music with precision and effect into physical and vocal theatre work. Add to this some pretty nifty, often uplifting, ensemble dance, and we are in the realms of very special theatre.
Don’t expect an easily accessible story; you’ll have to sit forwards and meet this production with the full attention it deserves. The ‘uncles’ don’t address us directly that much – they spend most of the time interacting with each other; the interaction is so full of soulful commitment and intensity, and it is that which is an open invitation of us, as audience: to sit forwards and contribute our full awareness – fail to do that and this piece, though visually compelling, might elude you.
The piece flows and changes, visually, vocally and musically like a switchback railway. There really are several pieces of theatre going on at the same time and you could return and just focus on each one at each new viewing: the theatre of eye contact, the theatre of dialogue, the theatre of dance and physical gesture, the theatre of musical mood and humour, and the theatre of ensemble movement. I went to see it twice. I’ll go and see it again, and this is a show where I’ll notice something new and precious each time.
I think Chekhov would be pleased. It captures the mood of his writing, it pays respect to the questions he posed, but it goes further, especially in movement and design. He’d sit at the back and frown. And then he’d smile. You won’t see more simple inventiveness packed into an hour anywhere on the Fringe. My favorite line "I’m like a hole dreaming of doughnuts". Truly outstanding work at the Bedlam.