Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Theatre review: Uncle Vanya

I can never quite decide which, of the plays so bleak even Chekhov didn't try to pass them off as comedies, is the most gut-wrenching: On the one hand Three Sisters spends its three hours relentlessly, unforgivingly tearing every last vestige of hope from its title characters; on the other there's Uncle Vanya, whose meditations on mediocrity and wasted lives get many a knowing, sad laugh of recognition out of its audiences. After a couple of high-profile outings for the former last year, it's the turn of the latter and Ian Rickson's production at the Pinter manages a lot more moments of dark comedy, while still packing a devastating punch. Vanya (Toby Jones) has spent his life managing the country estate that used to belong to his family, but was given away as his sister's dowry when she married a celebrated academic. The sister has long since died, and Vanya and Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) have pretty much raised her daughter Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) themselves.

The three of them have ensured the farm has maintained a small but reliable profit over the years, which they've always sent unquestioningly and uncomplainingly to Sonya's illustrious father, Professor Serebriakov.

But now the Professor (Ciarán Hinds) has retired and lost the Moscow flat that came with the job, so he's had to move to the farmhouse with his new, much younger wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar.) The couple's arrival has disrupted everyone, as the farm's rigid timetable has gone out of the window so that everyone can tend 24/7 to the Professor's whims and keep to his eccentric hours. Vanya's tragedy comes with the realisation of a bitter irony: He's always known he's chosen an unremarkable life, but was happy to do so in service of a great man - after a hard day's manual labour they even used to make copies of his manuscripts for him. Now it turns out the great man was a nonentity whose work was derivative, impenetrable and unlikely to ever be read in his lifetime, let alone down the ages, and the University pushed him into retirement at the earliest opportunity. Worse still, the nonentity himself has had no such epiphany, and has brought his sense of superiority and absolute entitlement with him.

Conor McPherson’s translation invites us to laugh at the characters even as we identify with them, and Rae Smith’s design goes for something that’s just about period-appropriate for the end of the 19th century while being ever-so-slightly off. It’s there in the costumes but more definably in the set, which is a large sitting room but has the trees and yard encroaching stage right, while stage left it dissolves into what seems to be the stage itself, with a modern fire door. There’s a lot of fourth wall-breaking by Chekhov standards, and even a lurch into the surreal when Vanya disappears into a sideboard. It’s perhaps all a nod to the characters’ constant awareness of living in one tiny moment in time, with the rapidly-diminishing forests of the past on one side of them, and a future more banal than they hope for on the other. Certainly you have to wonder if Chekhov believed his plays would keep being performed as long as they have, what with his characters’ tendency to deal with their sadness by assuring themselves they’re just paving the way, and people a hundred or two hundred years into the future will have finally figured their lives out. Well into the second century since Uncle Vanya’s premiere there’s inevitably a strong audience reaction to these ironic moments.

Feeling especially topical at the moment of course are Chekhov’s prescient concerns about the destruction of the Environment, which find particularly clear expression in this play in the form of the damaged, alcoholic romantic Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage.) The clueless object of Sonya’s unrequited love, he falls instead, like everyone seems to, for Yelena. Outside of the time covered in the story he’s probably the most dynamic character, planting and tending trees to replace the disappearing forest, but while Serebriakov and Yelena are staying he gets drawn into the general torpor and time-wasting; never more obviously than when he’s kept at the farmhouse all day because the Professor called for him then refused to see him, while at a nearby factory the victim of an industrial accident goes without medical attention.

As the low-key local heartthrob full of misdirected passion Armitage is apt casting in a production notable for it; Jones is perfect for Vanya, a character whose mischievous tone disguises a lot of darkness, but only goes to make people dismiss him as insignificant, and Wood is a quietly moving Sonya who builds a gently convincing bond with Calder-Marshall’s Nana, and whose rather startled-looking expression makes her understated take on the big final speech a convincing descent into despair she seems to genuinely believe is hope. Uncle Vanya is never going to be a cheery evening and in many ways this feels a particularly bleak take on the play, but it’s certainly an absorbing, intricately detailed one.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in a version by Conor McPherson is booking until the 2nd of May at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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