Conor McPherson’s second show in the current West End (his Girl From the North Country is on just a few streets away) is bold, comic and earthy new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It has tempted Richard Armitage back to the London stage for the first time in six years. Then he was the lead in The Crucible, but here he is the doctor Astrov. Drinking too much, pursuing the wrong woman, troubled by the loss of a patient. It’s a welcome return.
The set by Rae Smith is sparse (we see the pipes, fire exits, extinguishers and emergency lights of the stage, giving the play’s characters the appearance of ghosts from the past, half-remembered names and faces from “two hundred years ago”, as Astrov states in a moment of melancholy) yet cluttered and distressed. Chairs do not match, and show signs of wear. A towering bookcase has shelves collapsing under the weight of volumes placed upon it.
Only a hint of colour through the glass doors into the garden, one tree starting to make way into the cavernous living space, gives any sense of life progressing. This house is choking everyone in it. Even a storm in the depth of the night gives little respite.
Astrov is an idealist. An early environmentalist who berates his friend Vanya (a terrific Toby Jones, last seen at the Royal Court) about his consumption of wood as fuel. Better, says the good doctor, to reach down to the ground than destroy another part of the forest.
The smotth running of the house where Vanya lives and Astrov visits has been distrupted by the arrival of the selfish and self-absorbed Professor (a beautifully-judged Ciaran Hinds, fresh from Translations) and his young wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar). She is as empty and vacuous inside as she is beautiful outside, and sizzling with frustration and boredom.
This pair make the household eat lunch at 6pm, keep everyone up during the night, and cause havoc to the country way of life. The Professor’s daughter, Sonya (a restrained Aimee Lou Wood), from his marriage to Vanya’s dead sister, is a sensible peacemaker, but she has her own heartbreak to deal with.
Rounding out the cast as three accomplished character players: Dearbhla Malloy is a regal Mariya, with remnants of better days in her poise and voice; Anna Calder-Marshall’s Nana keeps house without much complaint; and Peter Wight’s idle Waffles is content to play music and stay on the sidelines as long as people don’t get his name wrong.
McPherson and director Ian Rickson tease out the comedy in Vanya’s predicament, and there is also a visual joke when Jones (an actor of fairly small stature) is next to Armitage’s rangy height. Physical appearance is referred to again and again – Waffles has bouts of acne, Sonya has “nice hair”, Yelena’s eyes dazzle both Vanya and Astrov, Vanya and Astrov are “old codgers” whose appearances have deteriorated with age.
There are beautifully judged moments, too. Sonya’s devastation when her beloved rejects her move for a kiss. Yelena letting down her guard now and then for the physical closeness her marriage clearly lacks. Vanya’s constant crumpling up as he stands or sits and the world moves around him. Mariya’s half-life in a world she no longer recognises, but dresses up for.
Perhaps not quite as moving as I would have liked at its conclusion,this Uncle Vanya is still a good production with much to admire, and I particularly liked the camaraderie between the cast members.
I found the contrast in the depictions of Vanya, Astrov, Yelena and Sonja between this production and the superb fringe version by Theatrical Niche I saw last year fascinating, proving that Chekhov can be interpreted in so many ways and retains its relevance to contemporary audiences.
Uncle Vanya opens tonight at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Productions photo credits by Johan Persson.
LouReviews purchased a ticket to see Uncle Vanya.