Almeida golden boy Robert Icke does it again.
Anyone who says boredom is boring is an idiot. People fight because they’re bored. People fuck because they’re bored. People despair because they’re bored. Boredom is the gateway drug to the emotional hard stuff – the joint of boredom leads to the crack cocaine of self-destruction.
Exhibit A: Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of all time, whose plays exclusively concern people mouldering away despondently in the Russian provinces. Most directors prefer to present it all as a sort of bittersweet melancholy, but in this sublime new take on ‘Uncle Vanya’ from the Almeida’s resident genius Robert Icke, the full impact of the characters’ boredom is exquisitely realised.
Not that Icke’s ‘Vanya’ is boring – far from it. But his production reaches its hefty three hour 15 minute running time via a series of silences so knife-edge-tense they might have caused Pinter to faint, as the play’s population of jaded smalltown dreamers seethe and smoulder and stew while Hildegard Bechtler’s wooden frame set slowly spins on its axis.
Icke made his name with his ultra-high-tech Orwell adaptation ‘1984’ and sealed it with last year’s similarly sophisticated ‘Oresteia’. But his more naturalistic, less tricksy ‘Vanya’ shows how good he is stripped down, with actors and emotions to the fore. His democratic adaptation gives equal weight to four of the characters: Paul Rhys’s sensitive John (ie, the Vanya of this modern setting); Jessica Brown Findlay in a vanity-free performance as his dowdy niece Sonya; Vanessa Kirby as her beautiful but desperately unhappy (and misunderstood) stepmother Elena; and Tobias Menzies as Michael, the charismatic, progressive local doctor slowly losing grip on his convictions.
All four are phenomenal as they steam away in the pressure cooker of Icke’s production, in which tension stokes and stokes in the precision rotation of the set, only occasionally relieved by a moment of drunken mania or an illicit snog. We never see the beginning of these people’s problems – and we certainly never see the end of them.
Perhaps the main achievement of the production, cast and Icke’s heartfelt, occasionally blackly comic adaptation is to create empathy: nobody is good or bad or an idiot here. Rhys’s John was not wrong to be a decent guy; Kirby’s Elena isn’t a monster for being ill-suited to country life; Menzies’s jadedness doesn’t undermine the good Michael has done; Sonya’s love for Michael may be hopelessly miscalculated but she may yet prove the only one with the practical skills to survive this life.
And that’s what it’s about, I suppose: life, in all its mundanity, heightened into something remarkable. Or maybe Chekhov and Icke’s skilfully wrought frame is a reminder that there never was anything more remarkable than life itself..