The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre 2020
This is one of the
finest productions I've ever seen of Uncle Vanya – and, indeed, of
any Chekhov play – and I urge you to see it.
It is not a happy
play, but a deeply involving and moving one. Chekhov shows us a
houseful of people who are all unhappy and guides us to accept that
it is nobody's fault. Unhappiness is just a fact of life – at least
of these people's lives – and the play generates recognition,
sympathy and perhaps even acceptance.
Quick summary: Vanya and
niece Sonya have run the family estate for Sonya's father, a
respected professor, but Vanya begins to realise that the man is both
unappreciative and not really worth all the sacrifices. Meanwhile
both Vanya and the local doctor fall in love with the professor's new
young wife, while the doctor remains blind to Sonya's love for him.
The stage is set for a
lot of disappointment all around, and
Chekhov's greatness lies largely in his ability to make us care about
all of them, even those who might otherwise function as villains and
those who are sometimes more than a bit ridiculous.
sometimes happens, everyone in a cast is bad, the fault lies with the
director. And so when everyone in a cast is excellent, much of the
credit must go to the director.
Ian Rickson has guided
his actors to
fully rounded and thoroughly sympathetic characterisations,
illuminating some of the figures in fresh ways and creating a world
that is thoroughly believable.
Toby Jones has built a
playing self-pitying little men and bitterly resentful little men, so
Vanya was almost an inevitable role for him, and he does it full
Vanya suffers several
disappointments in the play, and most
of the great actors I've seen in the role have picked one to be the
keynote of his experience – the discovery that he's wasted his
life, his futile love for Yelena, even his total irrelevance to the
Actor Jones and director
Rickman don't focus on any one
cause of Vanya's unhappiness but on the unhappiness itself. This is a
man who is doomed to be unhappy. It is as much a fact of his life,
and as inescapable, as his baldness, and it defines his entire
Decades ago there was an American comic strip character who walked around with his own personal raincloud over his head, so that he lived in perpetual gloom whatever others around him experienced. That's Jones's Vanya, and as comic as the man occasionally is, we cannot help but be moved by his plight.
And Toby Jones sees and communicates something else about Vanya that too many actors miss. The man has lived with his unhappiness so long that it has become familiar and comfortable, and on some level he actually enjoys complaining.
outstanding performance here is by Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya. Sonya
spends much of the play moping about mooning over the doctor and is
given what is too often a soppy and unconvincing message of blind
hope in the play's final speech.
But Wood not only makes
believable contemporary young woman, with the speech rhythms (credit
to Conor McPherson's fluid and natural new adaptation) and body
language of a teenager, but also invests her with a strength and good
sense that frequently make her the leader in sorting out the others'
emotional excesses. Her final aria is not pathetic but reassuring –
she will survive and her strength will help the broken Vanya to
Both Rosalind Eleazar's
Yelena and Peter Wight's professor
are softer and less culpably cold-blooded than the characters are
often played, and only Richard Armitage's doctor is a bit of a
We need to see what
attracts both Sonya and Yelena to
him, and Chekhov gives him the opportunity to show us, in a scene in
which he expresses his enthusiasm over a pet project and we should
sense the sexual energy women would find in such passion. But
Armitage doesn't generate that sexiness and the scene goes by almost
unnoticed, limiting both his characterisation and those of the two
It's a small lapse rather than a crippling one, and practically the only reservation in in an enthusiastic recommendation for this first-rate production.
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