Uncle Vanya (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: January 31, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Anton Chekhov      Adaptor: Conor McPherson      Director: Ian Rickson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

How can it be that Uncle Vanya, a play about the privileged classes living in Russia towards the end of the 19th Century, gets major revivals in the United Kingdom almost perennially? Perhaps it indicates that the air of decadence, described so vividly in Anton Chekhov’s 1898 bitter-sweet comedy, is felt no less strongly today. Perhaps the sense of living on borrowed time, seen in characters facing the calamity that would arrive with the 1917 Revolution, is felt even more acutely in this, the age of global warming.

In the play, ecology is a preoccupation of the visiting Doctor Astrov, giving Conor McPherson’s new adaptation one of its many modern touches. It seems odd that a work that deals with hopelessness, ennui, unrequited love and growing old should be classified as a comedy, but McPherson’s triumph, along with director Ian Rickson, is to ensure that the melancholy is never allowed to drown out the humour. Unlike many others, this production of the play is genuinely funny.

Vanya, in his late 40s, is managing a country estate with the help of his niece Sonya. Also living there are his stern mother, Mariya (Dearbhla Molloy), a destitute neighbouring landowner, “Waffles” (Peter Wight) and the comforting Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall). Vanya’s sister and Sonya’s mother is dead and the play begins shortly after the arrival from the city of her father, Serebryakov, an academic whose essays are, Vanya claims, read by nobody and his new wife, Yelena, who is 40 years younger than him.

Toby Jones is a superb Vanya, bored, dishevelled, cantankerous and haunted by wasted opportunities to build a more fruitful life. When he responds to small talk about conditions outdoors with: “perfect weather for slitting your wrists”, the actor’s mastery of sarcastic one-liners seems total. Richard Armitage also excels as the heavy-drinking Astrov, richly talented, but suspecting that his life is already on the slide and acutely aware that he will leave no legacy other than the trees which he nurtures proudly. Vanya and Astrov carouse over vodkas and brandies, but they are both besotted with Yelena and become rivals for her affections.

Ciarán Hinds gives authority to Serebryakov’s sometimes dithering attempts to persuade the family of the need to sell the estate in order to manage finances. Rosalind Eleazar makes Yelena a sensible and proper figure in fending off her suitors, but a kindly one in building bridges with her stepdaughter. In so doing, she tells her: “you are not ugly, you have lovely hair” giving scant consolation for her rejection by Astrov, with whom she is madly in love. Aimee Lou Wood’s beautifully observed Sonya takes the knocks stoically, picks herself up and gets on with things. 

Rae Smith’s set design has the grandeur of a room in a Tsar’s palace, with ornate decorations and a magnificent chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. The lighting, designed by Bruno Poet, diminishes gradually as the clouds gather over the characters’ fortunes. Their days of opulence are coming to an end and, while they know that their existences are without purpose, they cling on, because there is nothing else for them to do.

Other Vanyas will come our way, probably in the not too distant future, but this near perfect interpretation will live long in the memory

Performance date: 30 January 2020

Photo: Johan Persson

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