Last Updated on February 16, 2020
Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Soho.
For those who know and hold Uncle Vanya close to their hearts, this production at The Harold Pinter Theatre will delight. For those who are seeing the play for the first time, it is a masterful introduction to one of Chekhov’s finest works. Even for those with no interest in Chekhov at all, it is simply a treat to see such fine ensemble acting with Toby Jones in superb form in the leading role.
Uncle Vanya has been adapted by Conor McPherson, a multi-award-winning playwright with a long list of work including The Weir. The script sounds fresh and focuses on contemporary concerns. Along with strong direction from Ian Rickson, the play moves at a good pace even while remaining quite a long production.
Vanya, his mother and niece, Sonya, live with an ageing housekeeper, Nana, on a country estate that was owned by Vanya’s late sister. She died when Sonya was six and Vanya has run the Estate ever since. His brother in law, a retired Professor, Serebryakov, arrives to stay with his young wife Yelena. They can no longer afford to live in the city and the Professor announces his plan to sell the Estate and move to Finland. This will leave Vanya and the three women homeless and their efforts to keep the Estate running for 25 years will have come to nought. Long-held grievances boil over and create the humour and drama of the play.
Chekhov broke with the orthodox tradition of Russian 1800s playwriting and ushered in plays that moved into the interior world of the characters, focusing on conversation and mood rather than action and plot. Uncle Vanya, like all Chekhov’s plays, covers the big themes – the purpose of life, love, loss, mortality and religion. These issues remain of concern to modern audiences which is partly why the plays, like those of Shakespeare, continue to feel contemporary. In removing the references that lock the play into the late 1800s when it was written, McPherson has allowed Uncle Vanya to speak directly to audiences today. An emphasis on ecology – the importance of forests, the dangers of industrialisation destroying the planet’s resources, the fragility of the natural world and the need to preserve natural resources – makes the play feel very modern.
The theme of mental health is also ever-present through discussion about Vanya’s depression, Astrov’s alcohol dependence and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Professor Serebryakov’s hypochondria and even the madness ushered in by love. Sonya describes sensory hallucinations when separated from Astrov, an attractive local doctor and family friend for whom she has suffered unrequited love for the past six years. The vagaries of love form part of the humour and sadness of the play with each character having loved and lost or loved in vain. There are no happy endings.
Toby Jones is at the top of his game in his portrayal of Uncle Vanya, He is both vain and self-loathing, blaming others for his own inaction, believing he could have been the next Schopenhauer had he not been confined to a provincial backwater where he has wasted his life running the Estate that belonged to his late sister. He is capricious, melancholic, infuriating and infuriated, madly in love with the young wife who has replaced his late sister in marrying his brother-in-law, and yet fully aware he is well out of his league. He is both pompous and self-deprecating, comedic and pathetic. He unravels before our eyes, his mental health deteriorating to suicidal proportions. He is steadied by his niece, the young Sonya who is his late sister’s child and whom he has raised while her father absented himself with his academic life as Professor in Moscow.
Sonya is played by Aimee Lou Wood, a young actor currently starring in Sex Education on Netflix. I initially found it difficult to dissociate her from her role in the television series but as the play progressed her performance matured from slightly shrill ingenue to a heartbroken and thereby maturing young woman who brought the play to a climactic emotional conclusion. During the final scene, Sonya grows increasingly luminous as she attempts to survive her heartbreak with the utmost compassion, heralding the angels she hopes to hear one day when she and Vanya finally pass into the next life.
Rosalind Eleazar, as Yelena, evolved from aloof to sisterly, a wonderful scene between the two young women had them sitting on the floor, gossiping over cheese and wine. Men fell at her feet, unable to resist her beauty and angrily denouncing her as a fox, an octopus, a woman with mermaid’s blood. All the while she represses her own unhappiness in a sterile marriage with the Professor, 40 years her senior. She describes herself as ‘a footnote in the Professor’s life’. As her passion grows for the charismatic Astrov, she allows herself one moment of freedom and it was a relief to see her unleash a more passionate side of her character.
Anna Calder-Marshall was marvellous as Nana, depicting an ageing and wise, loving grandmotherly figure in stark contrast to the real grandmother, Mariya (Dearbhla Molloy,) who played a woman frustrated by her lack of freedom, railing against her son, Vanya, for failing to make use of the agency his gender has afforded him.
Richard Armitage was an impressive Astrov, the doctor who sets the female hearts aflutter. His mental health has taken a beating from his ongoing exposure to typhus epidemics and traumatic deaths. He is burnout, consumed with feelings of guilt and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His work as a doctor has deadened his feelings at least until he meets Yelena. He is a passionate man whose love of the forest and nature is compelling and his unusual ideas attractive to Yelena. But this is another love doomed and he faces a future of lonely, alcoholic decline.
Telegin is played with humour by Peter Wright, last seen on stage in Rosmerholm. Professor Serebryakov is played by Ciaran Hinds who portrays his preening pomposity coupled with a measure of vulnerability, growing hypochondria and resignation to his mortality.
The actors are all strong throughout this production of Uncle Vanya. In the first half emotions remain mostly repressed except for Vanya who is emotionally incontinent, his unhappiness dripping with sarcasm and venom. There is plenty of pathos to keep the audience amused. In the second half of the play, cathartic rage and despair threaten to overwhelm the players and emotions rise up and destroy their protective defences of reserve, denial and decorum. The performers at this point are at full throttle, their emotional power is compelling. By the curtain call, both audience and players are wrung out. In his most poignant scene, Astrov declares that ‘we are stuck here, our situation is hopeless’, and expresses the hope that in 100 or 200 years, ‘the people, they will have figured it out’. Those of us sitting in the audience hearing Chekhov’s message 130 years later realise that we have not.
The set, designed by Rae Smith, is an utter delight – a side wall of glass with a forest of trees beyond and an interior that is filled with the dappled light of in the first scenes and the growing darker as the play progresses. The costumes are beautifully toned to blend with the muted shades of the set, the actors donning outfits in greys, blues, and moss green. The entire play takes place in the one space which adds to a feeling of suffocation. The final tableau in a thing of beauty, one of the loveliest stage settings I have seen. In a scene reminiscent of a Grand Master interior, Nana and Telegin sit in the shadows, one knitting and the other softly strumming a guitar. Vanya and Sonya are illuminated partly by candlelight as if painted by Rembrandt.
With Three Sisters on at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at The Harold Pinter Theatre running until 4 May 2020, and The Seagull due to open in March, Chekhov fans are literally spoilt for choice in London this season.
Harold Pinter Theatre
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