Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov, in a new Adaptation by Conor McPherson
Harold Pinter Theatre

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage Credit: Johan Persson
Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood Credit: Johan Persson
Toby Jones and Rosalind Eleazar Credit: Johan Persson

This slangy new adaptation of a classic has fine credentials, given a creative team that combines Anton Chekhov with writer Conor McPherson, director Ian Rickson and designer Rae Smith.

An evening that stretches to around 2¾ hours is played out on a highly detailed and attractive country house set, which gently symbolises the slow collapse of a family and nation in crisis, with greenery and rot slowly breaching the walls stage right.

The costumes are more troubling, since they deliberately muddy the sense of period, with some characters apparently in Chekhov’s fin de siècle era, while others wear clothing drawn from later decades.

This is mirrored not only in the language, which can be Chekhovian but also mixes in the vernacular of later periods, potentially right up to the present, but also some of the body language and behaviour of the leading characters, in a production with a cast of eight that largely dispenses with minor figures.

The basic story is inevitably the same, with unrequited love causing dissension amongst the formerly affluent, “lazy” classes. Primarily, the problems circle around Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena, the beautiful, new young wife of elderly, irascible Professor Serebriakov, played by Ciarán Hinds.

She not only has Toby Jones, at his best when ranting or despairing as a particularly argumentative Uncle Vanya, in thrall but also the alcoholic local doctor, Richard Armitage playing Astrov.

He, in turn, unwittingly causes distress, completely ignoring the touching passion that he effortlessly engenders in the constantly disappointed but irredeemably good Sonia, portrayed by Aimee Lou Wood. This actress gives a fine performance, trundling around the stage stoop-shouldered as if carrying the weight of the world on her far from broad back.

By the end of the evening, there has been far more trouble, largely as a result of the boredom felt by all and sundry, as well as economic constraints that heralded the inception of the Russian Revolution, as the landed gentry were obliged to give way to their former serfs and servants.

A number of new concepts and themes are introduced by Conor McPherson as part of his vision.

When the doctor enthuses about forests, he sounds like a modern-day eco-warrior, addressing the perils of climate change. Similarly, tetchy Vanya’s frustrated and frustrating mother played by Dearbhla Molloy suddenly introduces a feminist edge, which sounds uncharacteristic.

However, the biggest change is the introduction of a trio of soliloquies from different characters, each of which not only gets inside their heads but, at the same time, extracts a modicum of the mystique that is one of the attractions of the original.

Overall, this new version of Uncle Vanya is entertaining ,playing up and introducing comic moments wherever possible but keeping much of the spirit of Chekhov, while the new elements give it a more contemporary edge. In exchange, this production loses an element of political and historical intrigue and provides some subtly altered characterisations. As such, it should prove popular but may not find favour with those who are devoted to more traditional readings.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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