“Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov is a portrayal of life in 19th century Russia, a tragicomical tale of unrequited love, ageing and disappointment, full of tumultuous frustration, dark humour and hidden passions. All of Chekhov’s four plays are set on rural estates with bored characters desperate to escape at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Margy Kinmonth reviews the show.
Olivier award winning playwright Conor McPherson (“Girl from the North Country”, “The Weir”) has created a stunning adaptation of Chekhov’s masterpiece. However, this is no ordinary 19th century Chekhov – MacPherson’s witty realist script crackles with contemporary language, running seamlessly alongside Chekhov’s melancholic poetry. His play speaks directly to us, more than a century on, with rawness and present day urgency.
What strikes me powerfully about this production is the set. As the curtain rises, you inhabit the faded grandeur of 19th century Chekhov’s world, with evening sunlight streaming in through tall windows. Rae Smith the designer says “Uncle Vanya takes place in a contested space, which is a cross between a living and a working space. And the house is a manifestation of Chekhov’s mental landscape”. As a film director myself, specialising in Russian subjects, I was interested to find out that this set is inspired by the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s own dacha 200 miles outside Moscow. The set mirrors the play as we see how nature is reclaiming this space, ivy grows in through the roof, and Chekhov’s characters live their lives in an inventive, unsettling apocalyptic post-Chernobyl setting.
Plays which take place in one set, with the characters coming and going, are characteristic of Conor McPherson’s work, including “The Weir” which I’ve seen several times, as well as “Girl from the North Country”. The set is key and remains consistent as the story unfolds. “Uncle Vanya” director Ian Rickson (Artistic director Royal Court 1998 – 2006) also directed Brian Friel’s “Translations”, which like “Uncle Vanya” all takes place in one room.
The archetypal central character of Uncle Vanya is played by BAFTA and Olivier Award-winner actor Toby Jones (“The Birthday Party”, “Hunger Games”). Jones’s performance is both poignantly comic and physical, at times intensely moving. The second half is electrifying, as the family drama plays out at breakneck speed. Vanya, with shirt constantly untucked, is full of energy, climbing furniture and hiding in cupboards like a hunted animal. There was an audible gasp from the audience as his mother, played by Dearbhla Molloy, betrays and publically humiliates Vanya in her attempt to keep face with her idea of society, and the professor.
Screen and method actor Richard Armitage (“Hobbit”, “Captain America”) plays Astrov the handsome doctor, the ultimate romantic idealist, often deep in introspection and worn out by provincial life. In 1899, Konstantin Stanislavski himself set the bar very high, playing Astrov in the first production at Moscow Art Theatre, received with great acclaim. It’s one of the great roles, and the top stars in history have lined up to play him, including Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen.
Astrov carries much of the actual character of playwright and doctor Anton Chekhov himself within his role. He expounds passionately about his love of nature – trees and typhus are his overriding preoccupations, amongst other things…
Chekhov is one of Russia’s greatest and most prolific writers, and he speaks powerfully to us today world over, his work translating across borders into many different cultures and countries. He foresaw the themes of climate change and environmental damage, which preoccupy us today; these issues were already as vital in the 19th century as they continue to be now. Chekhov was seriously ill with tuberculosis and tragically died in July 1904 aged only 44, leaving a huge legacy of writing on Russian life, short stories, letters and tantalizingly, only the four plays – every one a masterpiece.