Uncle Vanya**** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: February 18, 2016 in Theatre

uncle-vanya

Following his major success with Oresteia at the Almeida last Spring, Robert Icke returns as adaptor and director for a radical re-imagining of Anton Chekhov’s sorrowful comedy of resignation and despair, performed over three hours 20 minutes (including three intervals). In modern dress and Anglicised to the point that Vanya becomes John, the metaphors in the original for a dying Russian social order are all but lost, leaving a mellow reflection on themes that resonate universally – unrequited love, missed opportunities, lives wasted and people standing still while changes swirl all around, the latter emphasised by Hildegard Bechtler’s majestic open-sided set being on a constant revolve. The audience has the feeling of being onlookers through windows into a troubled home and, when characters descend into the audience, it is to confide in us their private feelings or to share bemusement at what is going on inside. Aesthetically, the design (complemented by exquisite lighting by Jackie Shemesh) is stunning, but there are practical problems. The revolve means that part of the drama is obscured from parts of the audience, in turn, by large pillars on the set. Furthermore, the contrasts of volume, the actors speaking softly when relaxed and loudly when tense, are very effective in heightening the drama, but there are audibility issues, particularly when actors are facing away. These are minor quibbles, but they matter during slow-paced Acts I and II, when an overriding theme is the characters’ boredom. It may be inevitable that boredom conveyed on stage will transmit itself to an audience and, notwithstanding a delightful late night revel that turns into an unexpected yet timely tribute to David Bowie, getting through to the second interval becomes something of a test of endurance. However,  the effort is repaid with rich dividends by a third act of searing brilliance in which cards are laid on the table, souls are bared and emotions are unleashed. Paul Rhys’ dishevelled, ramshackle and ultimately broken Uncle John now becomes a sparkling gem, matched by Tobias Menzies’ level-headed but still tormented Doctor, Jessica Brown Findlay’s distraught Sonya (Sofia) and Vanessa Kirby’s Elena (Helena), flirtatious, but trapped like a caged bird. Building to a chilling conclusion, Icke’s unique interpretation of this classic is marred only slightly by flaws in its execution, but lingers in the mind nonetheless as a haunting experience.

Performance date: 17 February 2016

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