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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Uncle Vanya
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 his 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.

When, as 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 career on playing self-pitying little men and bitterly resentful little men, so Vanya was almost an inevitable role for him, and he does it full justice.

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 universe.

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 existence.

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.

The other 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 her a 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 survive.

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 disappointment.

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 women.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Uncle Vanya - Harold PinterTheatre 2020
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