Those were Chekhov’s special subjects, in the four great plays that sealed his reputation as one of the world’s greatest playwrights; and Sam Holcroft’s bold 2009 version of Uncle Vanya, for just four actors, distils those themes into a sustained 85-minute howl of pain and longing. The play centres on Vanya, the disappointed middle-aged man desperately in love with his brother-in-law’s new young wife; but also gives full weight to the characters of his dutiful niece Sonya, the doctor Astrov whom Sonya adores with an unrequited passion, and the gorgeous Yelena herself.
In Gareth Nicholls’s intense studio production –the last of a series marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Citizens’ radical Close Theatre club – Vanya is played by Keith Fleming with a formidable wild-eyed desperation. The dress is modern, as he sinks into hoodie-shrouded depression; but the passions are timeless, leaving the unloved to endure desperate years of toil and emptiness. On a stage dominated by a simple, lamplit work-table, the force of his performance is matched by the vulnerable yet heartbreakingly resolute presence of Helen Mackay’s Sonia; and with Mark Wood and Scarlett Mack delivering fine supporting performances as Astrov and Yelena, this fierce studio drama whirls to its devastating conclusion, in a tribute to all the lives of quiet desperation lived with patience to the end, and to theatres like the Close, which bring us face to face with truths that can only be borne if we sit with others in a small space, and confront them together.