Review: Surprising Amounts Of Chuckles In Uncle Vanya
Snorts of laughter are not something we expect from a three and a half hour Chekhov play. But at Uncle Vanya, adapted by theatre wunderkind Robert Icke, there is hilarity as well as darkness. “In spite of my attempts at being serious, the result is nothing,” the Russian playwright once said. “With me the serious always alternates with the trivial.”
Uncle Vanya opens on a remote country estate, somewhere, on a stuffy late summer afternoon where an old lady is teasing the doctor Michael (Tobias Menzies), saying he’s got older and less dashing. Unpicking the man’s disillusionment beneath his affable demeanour as innocuously as she unravels her sewing yarn, this is a scene setter for catastrophic truth telling to come. When an old gouty professor and his beautiful wife appear they truly shake things up; the trigger for a dysfunctional family to confront individual disappointments and ultimately, find the strength to get through it all together.
The main thing to know about this Uncle Vanya? It’s extremely honest and quite simply, realistic. We thought this might be something Icke, who adapted the script, had done. But apart from replacing Vanya with the more relatable name Johnny (Vanya is apparently short for Ivan, or John, in Russian anyway), played as a tragically stunted child by Paul Rhys, the script is bang on the original text. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is functional — wooden stage, very slowly rotating as if a spinning earth (a metaphor perhaps for the place on the earth that each feels they have lost), the same props and set throughout. Possibly there were curtains.
None of the ‘acting’ feels much like acting. Numbed to love, but not to beauty, Dr Michael is an easygoing cynic, open to taking what short term pleasures are available without too much thought about the consequences on others. Particularly not on Jessica Brown Findlay’s disarming tomboy Sonya, who is cripplingly in love with him. Vanessa Kirby, as the man magnet Elena, is a confident actress, but there needs to be more than the strident in her as she swings from being in control of everything to constantly tearful, as she herself says.
There’s an element of the madhouse about this whole evening. Each of us is “weird” says the doctor and, in this enclosed space, no one can escape from who they really are. At times this is extremely funny — letting off steam, Menzies’s Mick Jagger dance in his underpants is amazing — at others, it’s moving, but not in the sense of scoring cheap hits from emotional highpoints. When Johnny’s done with his attempts at suicide, at killing the Professor and when Sonya finally confesses, uselessly, her feelings to the doctor, the two are simply left back to managing the estate. Counting up receipts, their companionship feels strangely comforting.
Last Updated 15 February 2016