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Toby Jones is phenomenal in this tender take on Chekhov’s masterpiece
After London’s theatres closed, ‘Uncle Vanya’ was filmed in an empty Harold Pinter Theatre, with the same cast except for Roger Allam, who replaced Ciarán Hinds. It was broadcast on the BBC in December 2020, and will remain on iPlayer for one year. UK audiences can watch it here.
If you think we’re all screwed, pity the poor characters in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’. Unsuccessful, bored and desperately, desperately lonely, they’re hurtling deeper and deeper into middle age with little in the way of prospects or legacy. And of course they’re all about to be zapped by the Russian Revolution – a prescient air that hangs over all of Chekhov’s plays but here wilfully underscored by adapter Conor McPherson, who has nudged the 1898 play forward by a decade or so.
Nonetheless, Ian Rickson’s revival is a long way away from pure misery. Maybe it’s the chill touch of my own encroaching middle years talking, but I found McPherson’s take the most relatable I’ve seen.
‘Vanya’ is the most malleable of Chekhov’s plays in terms of potential for lols, and this version finds a sweet spot between companionable chuckles and icy despair. Toby Jones is terrific in a vivid, vanity-free take on the title role. At first his sadsack estate administrator comes across as a faintly unbearable pub-bore type, and yet he won me over: he’s decent, witty and has a painfully, often humorously clear view of himself – well aware that he’s far less attractive than his lifelong friend Doctor Astrov.
The strapping Richard Armitage plays the doctor as a charmingly unworldly figure, whose good looks have eased his passage through life. He has fallen into drink but not yet despair; and despite having his admirers, Vanya is the one he really has a connection with. They’re an odd couple, but when they’re boozing away through the night they are both pitiable and pitch perfect – old pals who’ve never really been able to change, summoning that camaraderie for one more night on the lash. And it’s all quite recognisable. London is nothing if not a city full of Vanyas and Astrovs, middle-aged people living out a version of their youths. I know plenty of Vanyas and Astrovs.
But at least they have Stoke Newington to live in. Chekhov’s creations are stuck in the rural Russian provinces, at the mercy of Ciarán Hinds’s infuriatingly self-absorbed Serebryakov, whose total lack of empathy for anybody else borders on the elemental. Hope, such as it is, is manifested by his daughter Sonya. As played by the excellent Aimee Lou Wood, she is visibly, palpably younger than everyone else, and despite the emotional battering she receives over the two-and-a-half hours of Rickson’s production, she is ultimately unbowed, determined to move on in a way the older folks can’t or won’t.
Rickson’s productions are never knowingly unexquisite, and his ‘Vanya’ is beautifully lit by Bruno Poet, shafts of late summer sun drifting in through the windows of Rae Smith’s evocative set, which presents Serebryakov’s house in subtly abstract fashion, overwhelmed on the one side by a spreading thicket of weeds. Sometimes, dare I say it, Rickson’s extreme exquisiteness can lead to slightly dull productions. That’s absolutely not the case here: the play comes to the boil in the scene where a furious, despairing Vanya confronts Serebryakov, and it’s played just right here. Jones is note-perfect: sad but also genuinely hilarious. He even manages to claw back some dignity confronting Hinds about his monstrous dickishness. Unlike many productions, it’s much more about vindication than humiliation.
It’s still a lament for losing your way in your middle years. But it’s also a tender tribute to the small joy that remains – and on the occasions when the sparks fly, it’s even exhilarating.