Anton Chekhov wrote the play Uncle Vanya in 1895 but this glorious new staging and adaption at the Harold Pinter Theatre by Conor McPherson gives it a timeless feel while still rooted in the decaying country house of Imperial Russia, with a household full of ennui.
The brilliant and highly theatrical staging by Rae Smith, sets the play simultaneously in the faded glory of a twenty six room Russian Dacha and on the stage of a theatre with practical stage doors and a fire extinguisher visible to the rear. The stage right glass doors give a glimpse of the grounds and weather outside where leaves tumble on to the stage as autumn approaches. The huge regal mirror stage left reflects on the odd collection of family members who inhabit this space. It creates a picture perfect setting like some old master’s dusty painting in which the family go about their daily mundane business of eating, drinking, flirting and arguing and occasionally directly address the audience in powerful soliloquies.
The references to the decline and disappearance of the magnificent forest surrounding the house, mapped by the local Doctor and speeches about who will remember them in one hundred years, (but hoping that we will have figured the ecology out), have a biting relevance to today’s audience in this new eco-aware world.
Equally, the suppressed female roles of bored wife and servants and the assumption by the Professor of ownership of property, left to his stay-at-home daughter reminds us of the progress made on sexual equality. The modern language and twentieth century costume choices add to this fluid setting and give a sense that this could be any family gathering of today.
The marvellous cast of eight, under the excellent direction of Ian Rickson, create delightful pictures of relationships in turmoil and suppressed feelings. They use the depth of the stage well, with the Doctor sometimes loitering quietly upstage, listening into the family arguments, or peering through the windows.
Toby Jones is the 47 year old Uncle Vanya, a powerhouse performance of angst, sardonic humour and pent up frustration. His chaotic hair, untucked shirt and edgy delivery portray his character as much as the perfect comic timing and wistful glances. We see him crawling into a cupboard in a drunken state, raging in an outburst of resentment and quietly settling back into the old routine. Each feels real and generates our sympathy for his position.
Opposite him is the Doctor Astrov, played by Richard Armitage, a bristling tense man haunted by the death of a patient on the operating table, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and struggling with unrequited love. They portray two grumpy old men, lost in their world.
Armitage is at his best with Jones and Peter Wright as Telgin, in a hilarious drunken party or explaining his passion for the forest. He quietly accepts being told “you used to be gorgeous” and complains “I don’t feel anything now” and we sense that this is true.
Rosalind Eleazar plays the overpowering Professor’s (Ciaran Hinds) second wife Yelana, a bored seductress who both Vanya and Astrov lust after. Her listless bored lifestyle in the house leaves her open to temptation but her loyalty to her husband seems strong. It is a quietly powerful performance that holds its own against the three men trying to dominant and direct her.
Aimee Lou Wood plays Sonya, the twenty-seven-year-old naive daughter of the Professor, who has been bequeathed the house. Her quiet, subdued, childlike behaviour of the the first act is replaced by a steely determination and acceptance in the second and she too holds her own especially in her final words as they return to “their old ways”. There is also strong support from Anna Calder-Marshall as Nana and Dearbhla Molloy as Mariya.
The adaption, cast and direction, gives this classic tragicomedy an energetic, relevant, modern feel, in which we feel sympathy for the Vanya, Sonya, and Yelana and sadness that though life goes on, nothing changes. As in so many homes, they exist rather than flourish and seem powerless to halt the decay and despite the brilliance of the comedy we are moved by their plight. The only thing that has changed is that we no longer feel like “old codgers” at 47 years and we have many more years of life expectancy to make a practical difference.
Reviewed by Nick Wayne