Writer: Anton Chekov
Adaptor &Director: Robert Icke
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We are all strange, that is how we know we’re normal, so says Michael (Doctor Astrov) as comfort and conclusion in the final act of the Almeida’s new production of Uncle Vanya, which is set in the modern day and newly adapted by Robert Icke. Several productions in the last year have taken a fresh approach to usually dark Russian and Scandinavian dramas including the National’s breezy but emotionally powerful revival of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country last summer and Ibsen’s The Master Builder currently bringing the house down at the Old Vic. Into that space, then comes this new production and while its use of modern language and dress gives it fresh relevance, heightening Uncle Vanya’s comedic elements ultimately dilutes the human drama of despair at its heart.
Set entirely within a farmhouse, Alexander a Professor writing his latest book and his young wife Elena have outstayed their welcome in the family home and their presence begins to grate on the regular inhabitants of the house, Vanya (here renamed John) and his niece Sonya, as well as an extended assortment of relations and friends. Sonya is in love with the local doctor Michael who is in turn bewitched by Elena. Catalysed by the outsiders, over the course of a couple of days long suppressed emotions come to the fore as characters contemplate their wasted lives and ability to endure it.
This is a production of moments and, after an uncertain start so languid and listless, it’s hard to tell whether the actors have forgotten their lines, things begin to come together in the second act as characters start to unfold. While uneven, Icke introduces several touches that give fresh insight as individuals jump out of the stage to address the audience directly and give voice to their inner thoughts in mini-soliloquies which work well giving the actors a chance to shine, while some of the longer duologues are extremely engaging. But from the start, this adaptation strongly emphasises the humour of Chekov’s mundane situations, which is certainly there, but it encourages the audience to look for laughs throughout and means some of the most poignant moments are weakened.
Paul Rhys as the Vanya-character John rises above all this to deliver an extraordinary performance as a man riven with grief and regret, managing to endure until forced to assess his contribution in the wake of the Professor’s arrival. Initially a nervy but softly spoken man, his emotions eventually struggle free exploding spectacularly in Act Three before Rhys presents a broken and desperate John in the final moments. Matching him is Tobias Menzies as Michael, a man in love with nature – a nice climate change relevant theme – who is at once a breath of fresh air in the house and someone himself seeking change. Menzies perfectly captures the fears of a man not quite as young as he was and finding his old life no longer satisfying, and the intensity of the scenes between Rhys and Menzies show how good this whole piece could have been.
Vanessa Kirby adds interest to the role of Elena, the temptress of the farmhouse, and delivers an excellent monologue on betrayal, while Jessica Brown Findlay does despair well for three and half hours but, despite the greased hair and mannish clothing, it’s hard to believe she’s ‘ugly’ as Sonya continually claims to be. While the men get lots of time for philosophical fretting, the women mostly talk about boys, which is a shame but that’s largely Chekhov’s fault. Sadly the rest of the characters don’t add much to proceedings and an ongoing joke with Richard Lumsden’s Cartwright playing the same piece of music continually wears thin by Act 4.
Kirby must also be quite dizzy by now as this is the second time she’s performed on a revolving box-stage. This one, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, is used in exactly the same way as the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire rotating to give the audience insight into different characters at different moments – it even changed direction for the final act to signal a shift in tone as Streetcar did. Sadly it also suffers from the same view obscuring problems, which meant the prime seats in the middle of the stalls often missed key moments, hidden behind a pillar.
All the original themes are in place for this production of Uncle Vanya – the destructive nature of beauty, the threat humanity poses to the natural world and thwarted desire – and while moments of it soar particularly among the leads, others fall flat. None of this is helped by three 10 minute intervals that interrupt the flow and means the audience has barely left the auditorium before they have to come back. Yet, life is full of frustrations and, while modern adaptations of the classics can only bring new audiences, as Alexander concludes, there’s really only one thing for the cast and crew to do here, ‘get up, get on with it and get things done.’
Runs until 26 March 2016 | Image:Manuel Harlan