Making the most of every opportunity, using each precious minute to the max - all to escape the unbearable pain of a wasted life.
The nagging fears of regret we all experience from time to time, captured by the virtuoso of existentialism Anton Chekhov, can be seen on stage at the Vaudeville Theatre in Lindsay Posner's production of Uncle Vanya.
Two and half hours of epiphany following epiphany sees each of Chekhov's characters come to crossroads in their lives, brought about by earth-shattering realisations.
Anna Friel leads this starry cast as the apathetic Yelena, trapped in an upper-class world of stagnation, chained to an elderly, highly-strung husband. Entranced by her beauty, the disenchanted dashing Doctor Astrov (Samuel West) and farm labourer Vanya (Ken Stott) trail behind her, mouths agape, whilst Yelena's step daughter Sonya (Laura Carmichael) harbours a secret passion for the older doctor.
Making her entrance on to the stage with little presence, Friel's first scene sees her swaying idly on a swing, parasol in hand, musing over the weather - dull and unassuming with an air of indifference. This is how many of the characters see her: a beautiful aloof enigma.
It is when Yelena is in the private confines of her home with her geriatric husband that Friel begins to nail Chekhov's caged singing bird Yelena. Exasperated, on the edge, flying from tears to laughter, Friel shows a woman regretting her chosen life of married ease and comfort in 19th century Russia.
Despite many theatre-goers knowing the well-trodden path of Yelena's ultimate moral decision, Friel keeps the dilemma fresh, showing a woman driven by unhappiness to wisdom beyond her years.
What of the titular performance - Uncle Vanya - played by theatre greats such as Laurence Olivier? Fresh from the film studio playing Balin the Dwarf in Peter Jackson's forthcoming film The Hobbit, Stott brings an underdog charm to Chekhov's Vanya.
Despite a compelling performance, so much of Stott's performance feels like a comedy act - perhaps it is his Oliver Hardy build and red-faced indignation. It is only when he is sitting weeping on the bed that the reality of a broken and tragic figure feels fully realised.
Laura Carmichael swaps her Downton Abbey fame for Yelena's step-daughter Sonya: sweet, meek and prepared to accept her lot in life as a pining spinster. Tasked with the closing monologue of the show, Carmichael proved an absolute professional when Sir Peter Hall snoozed during her performance and appeared to heckle her in his sleep on the press night, ruining the pathos of Chekhov's stirring conclusion.
Unlike some of the dense cryptic dialogue seen in works such as Three Sisters, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is accessible, unfussy and light. With lavish sets and an accomplished cast, Posner's production is a Chekhovian treat.
Uncle Vanya is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until February 2013.
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Written by: Matthew Tucker
Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre
4 / 5 stars