Uncle Vanya review, The Harold Pinter Theatre: A gripping, if somewhat suffocating, production

There isn’t a huge amount of action here – Chekhov was a bit of a pioneer in the ‘play where nothing happens’ genre – but when it comes to nuanced character studies, Uncle Vanya is an embarrassment of riches

Alexandra Pollard
Friday 24 January 2020 11:48 GMT
Toby Jones and Rosalind Eleazar in Uncle Vanya
Toby Jones and Rosalind Eleazar in Uncle Vanya

The plant-invaded living room that frames Ian Rickson’s production of Uncle Vanya is a little like the characters themselves – beautiful, dilapidated and a little depressing. Pessimism and misanthropy hang in the air in this gripping, if somewhat suffocating, adaptation of the 1898 Chekhov classic.

McPherson has nimbly stripped back any lofty language from Chekhov’s script. A period piece in all other aspects, his Uncle Vanya nonetheless modernises the way the characters speak, rendering more accessible the psychologically complex original. There isn’t a huge amount of action – Chekhov was a bit of a pioneer in the “play where nothing happens” genre – but when it comes to nuanced character studies, Uncle Vanya is an embarrassment of riches.

There are traces of Basil Fawlty in Toby Jones’s pathetic (in both senses of the word) Vanya. Caught in a cycle of all-day drinking, cat naps and insomnia, he is frenetic, funny and deeply resentful. He’s also hopelessly in love with Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), the new wife of Vanya’s brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov (Ciaran Hinds). He’s marginally closer to her age – Yelena is 40 years younger than the Professor – but she feels nothing but platonic affection for Vanya. “I wasted my love in all the wrong places,” he rages. “Like the sun shining on a deep, dark hole.”

Yelena is hardly that, but she is restless, discontented and full of regret over marrying a man she can’t stand, having mistaken intellectual admiration for love. “I’m just a footnote at the end of your father’s life,” she tells Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), the Professor’s daughter by his late first wife. “And there are no happy endings in footnotes.” Eleazar’s performance is poised and subtle; Yelena makes no show for attention in a crowd of loud malcontents, but gets it anyway.

Sonya, meanwhile, is meek, loyal, insecure. “I hate myself,” she says at one point, and delivered by Wood, the words are both funny and tragic. In competition with her uncle Vanya for the most misguided infatuation, she is deeply in love with the local doctor, Astrov, played with a faded nobility by Richard Armitage. But he is team Yelena, too. As is often the case with those who are constantly overlooked, Sonya is far more observant than anyone cares to notice. “You hate to see people destroying things,” she tells the environmentalist doctor when he is blind drunk, “and yet you destroy yourself.”

Most of the men in Uncle Vanya have wasted their potential, and most of the women are chafing at the bit for more satisfying lives. “You had the good fortune to be born a man with agency,” says Vanya’s mother Mariya (Dearbhla Molloy). “What I wouldn’t have done with that agency.”

Every single player here evokes their character’s ennui terrifically – but it is so dimly lit, the staging so staid, the pace so unhurried, that the ennui is catching.

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