Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 2 May 2020
Above everything, the thing that stands out most about Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s evergreen Uncle Vanya is his use of the phrase “wanging on”, twice. It’s such a random thing but it rings out like a bell, both times, more so than any of the usages of contemporary language that pepper the script. Running it a close second though, is just how vital and vibrant Ian Rickson’s production proves.
From stacking his cast with real, proper talent (imagine your bit players being of the ilk of Anna Calder-Marshall, Peter Wight and Dearbhla Molloy) to reuniting with Rosmersholm designer Rae Smith, this is a finely tuned piece of theatre which ultimately, doesn’t do too much that is radical (though the fourth wall breaking-bits are smashing), but rather distils its Chekhovian spirit just so. Or maybe that it’s the first production of the play I’ve seen since turning 40 and its midlife crises suddenly have new resonance.
Toby Jones excels as the rumpled Vanya, caught in a moment of existential realisation when the rug is pulled from under his rather cushy situation, (barely) looking after the family estate. Downcast without ever being too desperate, his is a deeply empathetic portrayal that connects beautifully with those around him. Aimee Lou Wood’s youthfully lovelorn Sonya, Rosalind Eleazar’s passionate Yelena, Ciarán Hinds’ irascible Serebryakov.
Just as impressive though is Richard Armitage’s Astrov, his environmental concerns eerily prescient in this time of climate crisis, so too his slightly warped romanticism as he clodhops over the romantic allusions of the women around him. Throw in Bruno Poet’s hauntingly effective lighting, shadows creeping up the huge walls of Smith’s decrepit walls with the forest beginning to reclaim its land, and the result is a triumphant tragicomedy.