Cut off in its prime in March, Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya returns to us from an empty theatre, filmed for cinema release. It begins with very brief shots of the cast arriving in street clothes and masks and putting on their costumes, ending as they drop out of character, hug one another and put out the candles. These subtle inserts are very moving in their ordinariness, but in between we are transported somewhere far from Covid. Rae Smith’s cavernous, dilapidated interior sucks us into the world of Chekhov’s dysfunctional, worn out family and their terrible inability to be happy.
As Vanya, Toby Jones is the heart of the play. It’s a part that could have been written for him, and he is absolutely superb. He moves from frustrated ennui to complete desperation over four acts, as he sees more and more clearly how he has wasted his life. Yet he shows flashes of the with and playfulness that, until recently, made him the pillar of the household, with both his niece Sonya and sister-in-law Yelena. And his is also ridiculous, with an inflated idea of his lost potential (“I could have been another Schopenhauer!”). Teetering along an incredibly thin line between tragedy and farce, Jones captures the part completely.
Uncle Vanya has slightly more comedy than later Chekhov. When Vanya tries to shoot the infuriatingly condescending Professor (Roger Allam, pompous but not ridiculous in a fine performance), he despairs that everyone now thinks him mad. “They just think you’re an idiot”, Astrov tells him. However, this makes the sadness all the more real.
A cast of unfulfilled characters drift around the superannuated Professor Serebryakov, looking at him to give their lives meaning and being inevitably disappointed. Rosalind Eleazar makes Yelena, the stranded young wife, very moving behind a reserved front that only breaks down at the very end. Anna Calder-Marshall and Peter Wight are impeccable as the two ageing retainers, completely dependent on their chaotic employers. Dearbhla Molloy uses her low key presence, as Vanya’s mother, to deliver a miniature study of a woman marginalised by her gender. Richard Armitage captures both Astrov’s enthusiasm for abstract ideas, and his inability to relate to real people, which makes him the most destructive character of all.
The play does offer a bleak sort of hope, and most of this is carried by Sonya, played by the disarmingly direct Aimee Lou Wood. Despite being the youngest character, and the worst treated, she projects a genuine love for the wider family and for Vanya in particular. The final scenes, in which she and Vanya make a pact to carry on despite their shared rejection and unhappiness, is very moving. The reward she pictures for both of them in heaven is both the most desperate fantasy of all, and the most necessary.