Writer: Anton Chekov
Director: Ian Rickson
“Everything’s the same, but worse” – Uncle Vanya’s opening sentiments reflect a great many thoughts across the nation, as the ennui of our provincial lives shrink in perception as the world shutters itself inward. Ever since its debut in Moscow in 1899, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya emerged as a staple of the theatrical and literary culture for its frankness in life’s pragmatic outlooks and pangs of romance. Now Ian Rickson returns to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre to create a film version of his production of Uncle Vanya, which opened at the beginning of the year, for the BBC.
Sensationally sentimental, Rickson’s direction and interpretation of the Russian classic takes an intoxicatingly personal approach to the volatile nature bureaucracy has on the lives of workers. The rub being, it’s too safe: too soppy in moments and he doesn’t sharpen the knife enough to hurt where it needs to. The lament of wasted time bites for some and every character in one way or another, lose something, be it a home or a loved one or their grip on the fleeting happiness they had.
The broken heart at the centre of this is, of course, Vanya and Toby Jones brings decisive delivery, once more demonstrating how utterly undervalued Jones is as a performer. His Vanya is not only a bag of histrionic nerves but has an earthy jovial charm which feels authentically rustic. This is a Vanya who carries the estate on his shoulders, and Jones emphasises the weight, but conveys the attitude and quips Vanya makes to ease some of the burdens effortlessly.
Jones has tremendous co-stars to work with, developing Vanya’s futility of life into a painful reminder that his wasted time is now steadily tightening around his neck – particularly his adoration for Yelena, which clashes with the uncomfortable force of Richard Armitage’s advances as Doctor Astrov. A lynchpin for the men surrounding her, Yelena becomes a catalyst of sorts, though understated, leaning into the humanity and stresses. Rosalind Eleazar centres herself of between the opposing forces.
Pandering, sycophantic and blind sighted, Roger Allam’s Serebryakov surrounds himself with the head-bobbers who would likely feel quite at home in the current Government cabinet. From the stoic, but the revolting upturned nose of Dearbhla Molloy to the simpering, but tragically poetic and engaging Aimee Lou Wood – Uncle Vanya, through these performances, unequivocally demonstrates the unparalleled ferocity in live performance.
Blending into the digital format, the decaying opulence of Rae Smith’s set and Bruno Poet’s lighting design proffers a creative mindset to fuse theatre and screen, though steadily as the production moves forward some shots come straight out of Albert Square, Walford with intense close-ups which oversaturate the melodrama (which in a Chekov play is remarkable). Taken for granted by the camera (the film director is Ross MacGibbon) is the lavishness of the settings, the tainted light capturing the mundaneness of the lives of the residents.
The parallels of the mindless elite sweeping the livelihoods of those around them for a small profit is the lowest of low hanging fruits these days, but Uncle Vanya takes a decidedly less obvious approach in the actions of the few to undermine the many. Instead, there’s a direction which works its way more into the underrunning narrative promoting conservation. Sickly sentimental, Rickson’s production is nonetheless a testament of the stage, and a more than welcome addition to homes across the country.
In selected cinemas from 26 October 2020