BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Harold Pinter Theatre
From the get-go (a phrase that one half expects to hear in Conor McPherson's contemporary update of Anton Chekhov's text) there's a big old laugh that resonates round the theatre and I inwardly relaxed just a little. With Chekhov, one sometimes wants to ask of one's immediate neighbours, "That's a laugh line, isn't it? We're supposed to be laughing, aren't we? I know we were crying two minutes ago and we'll be tearful again in another two, but...".Nobody quite walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy with the aplomb of the Russian master, and it's a delight to see the ensemble execute the twists and turns of the peerless prose, as we learn of the pompous Professor, the green Doctor and the disappointed niece.
Toby Jones is at the heart of it as Vanya, a sour, bitter, tragic version of PG Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth, stuck not so much in his country house as in a mind that is filled with regrets. Jones uses all of his charisma to create a sense of empathy with the audience - in less skilful hands, we might turn against his solipsistic victimhood and consider the peasants outside, whose lot was somewhat less comfortable. But we don't - Vanya does deserve more, his bad choices bad, but the price paid so, so high.
This is a true ensemble piece (even we're involved, as the fourth wall is broken continually) and you can't wait for another character to pipe up with an aperçu or two.
Richard Armitage's Doctor Astrov oscillates between the fire of his Greta-ish warnings of environmental apocalypse (not much updating required there - Chekhov could see it unfolding at the dawn of the 20th century) and his reliance on the booze to numb the ennui. You see how vulnerable he was to the merest hint of interest from the beautiful Yelena.
Ciarán Hinds veers close to caricature as the academic for whom Vanya has worked all his bloody life, but there's nothing feeds an ego like the prospect of citations lining up and positive peer reviews - then as now. Peter Wight has a lot of fun as hanger-on, Telegin, especially in the rain - I'll say no more...
In this version, more than any others I've seen, the women get to deliver the emotional gut-punches that balance the humour. Anna Calder-Marshall sets the tome with that early laugh, but is soon sent to shoo away the peasants at the gate, the hierarchy of servants evident.
Dearbhla Molloy flits in and out of the drawing room (Rae Smith's set depicting a decrepit, but functional, space, a three-dimensional portent of Vanya's future), dazzled by the Professor, unable to see how his selfishness is ratcheted up still further with his fateful proposal for the estate, driving Vanya into madness.
But the relationship between the Professor's young wife, Yelena, and Vanya's young niece, Sonya, continually draws the eye and pulls at the heartstrings. These two intelligent women are trapped - Yelena with her preposterous husband and too easy life, and Sonya in an unrequited passion for the Doctor, displaced by manic work.
Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood break your heart with their fates, as much because they must be separated from each other (their lives would be so much better if Sonya shared some of her work with Yelena) as from real love. Astrov is a damn fool if you ask me!
Director Ian Rickson has created a Vanya for 2020 that can be enjoyed by a first-timer as much as by a veteran of Seagulls, Sisters and Orchards past. Amy Ball has assembled a perfect cast to deliver that vision and they do not disappoint.
Vanya himself has every right to ask for more - I'm not sure that we do, though.
Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May.
Photo Johan Persson.