Mark Ludmon reviews Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya directed by Ian Rickson now playing at the Harold Printer Theatre, London.
Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Despite its stifling atmosphere of gloom and decay, Uncle Vanya is considered one of Chekhov’s more comic plays. Conor McPherson’s new adaptation at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson, embraces this with an almost farcical tone, making it highly entertaining and accessible but without detracting from the overall mood of despair.
The play’s depiction of “horrible provincial life” is one familiar from Chekhov’s dramas. An extended family lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation on their remote country estate, stuck in a daily routine of diminishing returns. Vanya, the uncle of the estate’s young owner, Sonya, has sunk into dissolution, lurching from sleeping to drinking to ranting bitterly about the pointlessness of their existence. The local doctor Astrov, vulnerable after the loss of a patient, has been sucked into this indolent lifestyle, distracting him from his projects to improve the local environment after years of deforestation. The household is shaken up by the return of Sonya’s father, a high-flying professor, and his glamorous young wife, Yelena, but, as passions run high, it seems nothing can stop the energy-sapping entropy.
First staged in 1898 as unrest was growing ahead of revolution, Uncle Vanya presents a middle-class rural society in “steady irreversible decline”, left behind by 19th-century progress. This is brilliantly reflected in Rae Smith’s design where the dimly lit living room is encroached upon by leafy branches as if the house were already abandoned to the elements. With Bruno Poet’s lighting design playing with shadow and light, it sits like a ghost on a reconstruction of a stripped-back 21st-century stage, with fire doors and ducting clearly visible.
Although still set in late 19th-century Russia, McPherson’s adaptation gives Chekhov’s writing a striking modernity through lucidly vernacular language. Toby Jones is excellent as a tragicomic Vanya, dishevelled and despairing, hopelessly in love with Yelena, played with charm and exasperation by Rosalind Eleazar. With a self-absorbed pomposity, Ciarán Hinds is solidly antagonistic as the truth-telling professor, as deluded and impractical as the rest of the family. Richard Armitage perfectly embodies Astrov’s fervour with a physicality that inevitably attracts both Yelena and Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya while charting his own steady irreversible decline.
Illuminating the supporting characters, Peter Wight as estate worker Telegin, Anna Calder-Marshall as the aged Nana and Dearbhla Molloy as languid matriarch Mariya complete the strong ensemble. Anyone wondering if we need yet another production of Uncle Vanya can be reassured that this lively adaptation opens up Chekhov’s drama to give it a sharp, modern voice that captures the dark humour of lives crushed by disappointment and frustration.
Running at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 2 May 2020.