An evocative play about family resentments and tensions in a changing world. Adapted by Conor McPherson, Directed by Ian Rickson
The theatre production for this Chekhov play was halted in March this year due to COVID-19 but the production was filmed in London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, released in cinemas and is now available on the BBC.
What we see is an accomplished filming of a theatre production rather than a film/TV adaptation, as all the action takes place in one room and there is a distinct lack of intrusive camera work. The play is adapted by Conor McPherson and directed by Ian Rickson and with a strong cast they have managed to create an event very similar to visiting a theatre for a classic play.
The set is wonderfully dark and rustic in its faded grandeur. There is a good range of ‘off-stage’ effects from lighting, rain, bird and cricket sounds. We see incongruous items like radiators, fire extinguishers, conduit and fire notices. Many of the costumes are not true to the period either but the production is none the poorer for this.
The play portrays the visit of elderly professor Serebryakov (Roger Allam) and his beautiful, young second wife, Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), to the family’s rural estate. Vanya (Toby Jones) is the brother of the professor’s late first wife and Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) is the professor’s inconvenient daughter of this first marriage. They have both managed the estate producing money to help fund the professor’s lifestyle in the city.
The visit of the professor and his wife upsets the daily routine of the estate and the professor has to put his affairs in order as the University is to retire him and take back his house. The bomb shell is dropped when the professor announces he is selling the estate to invest the money to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife.
During the course of the story, we see played out a number of tensions including Vanya’s contempt for the professor, believing him to have achieved nothing of any worth in a lifetime writing meaningless academic papers. Vanya is disappointed with this own life believing he could have been another Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky and holding the professor responsible for this.
Sonya, the practical but plain daughter of the professor loves Astrov (Richard Armitage), the local vodka-soaked doctor but this is unrequited as he is in love with the beautiful but vacuous Yelena, as is Vanya.
Dr Astrov is an early eco-warrior with his passion to protect the forest and its wildlife but understanding that impoverished people need to cut down the forest for their immediate needs.
There are minor characters here including Waffles (Peter Wight), a pockmarked, impoverished landowner who is now dependent on the estate, Vanya’s mother (Dearbhla Molloy) and Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) who gives a truly excellent and convincing performance and is an anchor for the dysfunctional clan.
Vanya makes a half-hearted attempt to shoot the professor before stealing morphine from the doctor’s bag, again in a half-hearted plan to end his unhappy life.
Vanya and the professor make their peace but the whole situation is left unsettled and unsatisfactory. When the professor and his wife leave, the estate begins to return to its normal rhythm with Vanya and Sonya paying bills and Nana knitting. There is a final moving speech given by Sonya about how we must suffer in in this life for rewards in the afterlife.
This is a truly wonderful, epic production with fine performances. Roger Allam is definitive as the pompous, unempathetic professor. Toby Jones is marvellously dishevelled throughout looking like a modern-day homeless man having drunk a number of cans of Special Brew. The company were brave to cast a black woman as Yelena (a nineteenth century Russian lady) and this paid off as she is perfectly cold and aloof. Aimee Lou Wood is too pretty to play the plain Sonya which is crucial to Chekhov’s plot but her portrayal of her is faultless with her committing tears, snot and changing skin tonality. Similarly, Richard Armitage gives a strong performance but is too handsome to play the provincial alcoholic, eco-doctor who is resolutely single.
The show closes with some behind camera shots including rows of empty theatre seats which is both heart-breaking and hopeful that with great performances like this theatre will return.
Available online until December 2021 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000qplz/uncle-vanya
Reviewer: Bob Towers
Reviewed: 30th December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★