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Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a superlative company achievement | reviews, news & interviews

Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a superlative company achievement

Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a superlative company achievement

Ian Rickson’s exemplary production relishes the nuances of Conor McPherson's adaptation

'Many of us will be lucky if we see a better cast in our lifetimes'Images - Johan-Persson

Uncle Vanya must surely be the closest, the most essential of Chekhov’s plays, its cast – just four main players who are caught up in the drama's fraught emotional action, and four who are essentially supporting – a concentrated unit even by the playwright's lean standards.

Its overlapping strands of unrequited love and desperate loneliness are tightly wound, so organically so that any single false note risks throwing the whole off balance. That’s never the case in director Ian Rickson’s exquisite production of this new adaptation by Conor McPherson, one which stretches the original in certain directions but succeeds resoundingly in making the turn-of-the-20th-century cares of the original resonate today.

In one particular sense, of course, the contemporary relevance is startling. The ecological concerns articulated by Astrov, the careworn doctor who's as much concerned for the forests that he plants as the patients whom he tends, have an uncanny freshness, Chekhov’s pessimism about the possibilities of human relationships for once finding a parallel on a plane that lies beyond them. Played with haunting, lean intensity by Richard Armitage, Astrov may be reticent about his private world but he’s forthright about the future of the planet, telling us of its “steady irreversible decline”. The bleakness of his prognosis, “Ten more years and the destruction will be complete”, could have come from this week’s newspaper headlines.

For these Russian men, as for McPherson’s Irishmen, drinking is far more a direction than a diversion That feeling of interconnection between man and nature is nicely caught in Rae Smith’s capaciously elegant design, with its tendrils of outside greenery invading the huge interior stage space through the high windows that partially illuminate it. Colour and light seem to struggle here against a wider blackness: the further the eye retreats, the stronger the sense of mouldering accretions of the past, until all vanishes into the bare brickwork of the back wall (Bruno Poet’s lighting has just that sense of light hanging, somehow isolated, in darkness).

The nuances of McPherson’s action seem almost bright by comparison, elements of humour and stage business (the sleepwalking and dance scenes) amplified in his treatment. It’s there most clearly in Toby Jones’s Vanya, a figure rumpled even by the standards of that actor, his disgruntlement palpable from the moment we set eyes on him waking from an alcoholic nap. Booze has always been a defining accent for McPherson’s characters, and his Vanya is as thirsty as any in that line. “I drink too much wine which means then I start into the liqueurs which inevitably lead me on to the spirits,” he harrumphs gloriously at one point, punctuation be damned, trying to fathom how his best intentions have been furtively frustrated. The strains of affectionate remonstration, most of all those from Anna Calder-Marshall’s beautiful old Nana, the quintessential aged retainer who’s as much a member of the family as anyone, surely have a more poignant ring of regretful accusation than usual in Chekhov: it comes with the sad resignation that for these Russian men, as for McPherson’s Irishmen, drinking is far more a direction than a diversion. (Pictured below, Toby Jones, Richard Armitage)Toby Jones and Richard ArmitageBut McPherson flavours Vanya’s disenchantment with an element that’s less familiar from Chekhov – sarcasm. It’s perhaps the single questionable aspect of the adaptation, most of all in a particular moment when Jones goes into a riff that’s as close to Basil Fawlty as John Cleese has ever come (the stage impact is impressive in its way, of course). Elsewhere he may be rebuked by Telegin (Peter Wight, expansively affable) for his “disparaging” manner, but his mother (Dearbhla Molloy) goes the whole way and berates him for sarcasm; the introduction of the word into the play is McPherson’s – Chekhov doesn’t use it, and somehow it doesn't quite fit with the writer's broader humanism.

That, as well the fact that his diction shows an obvious familiarity with Cluedo, leaves the impression that this Vanya has been very much nurtured in Anglo-Saxon climes. His cynicism harks back as far even as Shakespeare’s Jacques – and forward, in his companionship with Armitage’s Astrov especially, to some seen-better-days protagonists out of Graham Greene: McPherson gives them an easily collegiate jargon adopted from some inter-war generation, all “going a bit wonky”, “off my beanpole”, “wanging on”. “She’s thrown it all away on this old knobbly croaker,” is how Vanya describes the marriage of Yelena (Rosalind Eleazer) to Ciarán Hinds’s aged Serebryakov, whom he addresses in a moment of rare affability as “me old sausage”.

Then from such a faux-Wodehouse world, we are brought back squarely to Russia, and the heart of the country's national ennui, its toska. “What good does drinking do either of you?” Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya asks Vanya, his reply coming back with pitiless laconic precision, “It kills the days.” There’s some lovely tipsy business between the two men (“Awight”), but Armitage is never far from the “darker energy” that Chekhov ascribes to him: the one ailment that this doctor, with all his talk of how centuries may heal the pain, has perhaps failed to diagnose, in himself, might be some sort of PTSD. While Vanya can talk of pity – and self-pity is the dominant motif of the play – compassion is another register entirely, one to which Armitage has heartbreakingly limited access, Sonya heartbreakingly more. (Pictured below, Rosalind Eleazar, Aimee Lou Wood)Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee-Lou WoodDo the female roles occasionally feel overshadowed? It’s hard to escape that impression, given the tone of Vanya’s dominant humour, though the performances are superb. Wood’s Sonya is enduringly naif, undeterred by life’s disappointments, that innocent quality accentuated by the accent, starting with her affectionately Northern uz, that she retains throughout. Rosalind Eleazer as Yelena is outstanding, her hinted awareness of freedom coming through early on when she stretches across a table, leading up to that final stolen embrace, a moment clutched desperately out of time. It’s tempered by a hint of haughtiness, even snobbery (McPherson's contribution, if it's there), a register that she shares with Hinds, whose Serebryakov is distinguished by the clipped, vainglorious rasp of his voice. Though even Yelena succumbs to a softening of diction in the second half, the hint of an Irish lisp creeping in – Nana and Astrov have it, too – that suggests that McPherson, or at least his cast, has in mind his own homeland as much as Chekhov’s Russia (twin environments equally remote from any notional centre of Europe).

It’s a superlative collective performance from the cast – many of us will be lucky if we see a better one in our lifetimes – one that, though it’s rich in talent well known from elsewhere (the small screen, especially), plays here in newly minted unison. Somehow “ensemble” seems less appropriate a term for Uncle Vanya than for some of the other Chekhov plays, given that what resounds most powerfully here are the series of scenes between just two actors. But Rickson achieves an ensemble effect in a different way, by creating the kind of hush in the theatre that keeps the audience hanging on every utterance, every gesture. It’s moderated only by Stephen Warbeck’s score, redolent cello and piano, particularly haunting when it plays over the interludes between acts, and the characters move together silently, suggesting a higher harmony even while all we see on stage is strife. Sad roses, autumn roses, indeed.

The ecological concerns articulated by Astrov have an uncanny freshness today


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Excellent adaption! Fantastic cast and strong performances and Toby Jones...well, the man is unplayable.

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