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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Uncle Vanya

Harold Pinter Theatre in Association with the BBC

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Film, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre

Festival: ,

Low Down

Directed by Ian Rickson, teamed here with film director Ross McGibbon to produce this filmed version to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre during August 2020. Featuring Conor McPherson’s translation, Rae Smith’s Design and Bruno Poet’s lighting. Music by Stephen Warbeck, sound by Ian Dickinson and casting by Amy Ball CDG. Featured at Odeon Cinemas again after lockdown, and on the BBC, date TBA.


When Ian Rickson’s outstanding production of Uncle Vanya closed prematurely at the Harold Pinter Theatre in March because of Covid, it was close to the end of its run; but still cheated of its final weeks. So Rickson teamed with film director Ross McGibbon to produce this filmed version to an empty Harold Pinter during August. We see the actors entering and unmasking, shifting from 2020 troubles to Russia, 1899. Which makes it the more powerful lens. Exhausted undervalued young workers, a doctor who can’t save some lives turning to drink and a dream of love.

The result’s undoubtedly shifted performance a bit too, with seamless production values meaning it’s not quite NT Live, though both boast exquisite camera angles. There’s six cameras here. It still captures the essence of this once-in-a-generation Vanya, and adds a refraction, a Chekhovian stasis not entirely there in the original run. It speaks to our own standstill. The UK theatre’s always identified with Chekhov, at least since the 1920s; we feel him even more empathically now. But then he’s felt us coming.

Conor McPherson’s clean translucent version keeps faithfully to the original’s rhythm and detail. Sprinkling expletives and a few anachronisms it allows a lithe dispatch, the actors delivering its economy with naturalness. Rae Smith’s set, all dust-browns and greens in the single set drawing room is bare-board shabby-genteel hinting decades of use, make-do-and-mend, down to chairs, a window and door with a feeling of lessness, things discarded not replaced. Costumes range from period to Yelena’s timeless blue dress. Bruno Poet’s lighting is refractive, glaucous, whether from a still Russian June through a blowy July storm to a nippy September. The smokily atmospheric music by Stephen Warbeck, brief and never distracting (though you fear at the outset it might be) is counterpointed by naturalistic sound by Ian Dickinson.

Toby Jones centres the title role like a puckish Ian Hislop, querulous, squatting or compressing himself into a grotesque as he hurls out an emphatically provincial skirl at the splendid Moscow apparitions of his ex-brother in law Roger Allam’s professor Serebryakov – new to the cast – and his much younger wife Rosalind Eleazor’s Yelena.

With whom he’s hopelessly in love. The chain of A loves B who loves C who loves D who loves themselves but pursues an equally monstrous E isn’t quite as schematic as The Seagull, but the catalyst here still marks quiet catastrophe.

Vanya has kept the estate 25 years and brought up Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya from his first marriage; Serebryakov’s now brought his improbably younger second wife. They’ve arrived to escape Moscow’s bustle after the Professor’s been retired. And soon they can’t stand it.

What’s so distinct about this production is assumption of accent as dominance. Allam, a touch more youthful and reasonably avuncular, at least suggests why 27-year-old Yelena a decade ago might have married him, after Vanya’s sister, and Maria Vasilevna’s (Dearblha Molloy) daughter died. Maria vestigially believes Serebryakov’s a genius. Vanya’s long smoked him as a fraud, a ‘bubble’.

Allum’s avuncularity is here superbly blunted into pompous complacency, unable to understand that his proposal will rob Sonya of both birthright and the only roof she’s likely to call home. Allan’s particularly fine in conveying moral blindness with academic distraction: there’s no old man’s foible about it.

Molloy too in Maria’s early rational dress and not looking a half-generation older than the professor (let alone mother of 47 year-old Vanya) in this production shows her mettle; a seething sense of what it is not to have been a man and held a position. Here too Molloy reveals a gradual dawning of recognition that her former son-in-law’s academic work, over which they’d all so assiduously laboured, is worthless abstraction.

And here’s the split. Why is it the professor’s daughter Sonya, left to be brought up by Vanya, wasn’t given the same education as Yelena only five years her senior and who studied at the Moscow Conservatoire? Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya impossibly marooned, like Vanya speaks in another accent – northern here. Wood’s heartbreaking, an arc of searing hopelessness and endurance that makes you fall in love with her. But for these purposes he speaks like a servant, not in the same class as Yelena. Is it because she’s meant to be plain? Wood gamely tries dowdy though her radiance blows it away especially in climactic scenes, so Rickson’s use of accents to render someone down-at-class is both accurate and cunning.

You see why Richard Armitage’s Dr Mikhael Astrov overlooks Sonya charmingly for Yelena, his smouldering but thoroughly middle class professionalism dazzling both women with aspirational talk, eco-charts and his astonishingly prophetic re-greening passion, showing the deforestation over a century as an ecological disaster. Not exposed to this play before, people gasp at its prescience or wonder if it was written yesterday.

Astrov later opines that Yelena’s the kind of person to cause havoc. He doesn’t reflect on his own capacity. Armitage conveys more than the pent-up desires of this prematurely despairing idealist, who latterly abandons his duties and like Vanya, drinks. He pulses with a keen self-knowledge akin to self-loathing. Yet in the drinking scene with Vanya there’s the true ghost of high spirits; well vodka-high.

Anna Calder-Marshall with whom Armitage opens the play as Marina, the nurse is a miraculous shaft of memory and stability, an appeal she feels faltering, falling to bits. She’s very funny about Astrov beginning to age. Peter Wight’s way with unobtrusively making dispossessed landowner Telegin’s presence felt is a shimmering study in a platonic shot-grey silk. ‘Waffles’ (such a nickname further marginalizes him) is forever realizing he’s overstepped his precarity by half a millimetre, always returns to his guitar, a class act in anchoring mood, how to negotiate nothingness.

Eleazor’s Yelena is less flirty, much less coquettish as some versions have made her. She’s more remote, prematurely resigned and only gradually explosively realizing her desire for a younger man, wrongly-married off to a husk. Eleazor’s dignified, a little remote, perhaps more the Moscow Conservatoire student – she plays the piano here too – than a young woman waiting to bestow her natural desires on a suitable lover. For some she might feel a little adamantine, despite a wild farewell.

It’s possible there’s a reason. Since there’s real warmth between Yelena and Wood’s Sonya as the latter makes a friend of her, and they share secrets, their physicality in conspiratorial movements briefly as joyous as anything in the sad antics of Vanya and Astrov. Here with the young women you sense hope bubble a few delicious minutes, then pop.

It’s inevitably Wood and Jones who carry the burden in even this near-pitch-perfect cast. Jones crumples as a prematurely-seedy man already dissolving in drink and emotional outbursts of self-pity – he could have been a Dostoevsky or Schopenhauer he declares, and you feel it’s both absurd and true. After all Astrov isn’t flattering him when he declares they’re the only two intelligent men around. Women aren’t even conjured. Could he when 37 have wooed Yelena at 17 -before he started drinking and was charming as the latter reminded him? It wouldn’t have been so hopeless a match perhaps, but Astrov would always have arrived.

Jones gradates his performance too from puckish-hopeless to sheer torpor – and this production oozes it – through to the vein of fire that you know will explode when the professor’s callous proposal is made. Even here there’s Astrov’s devastating humour – how could Vanya miss at close-range? Farce always counterpoints tragic farce.

Jones is though devastating, the definitive Vanya for our times. And Wood matches him completely as Sonya. The mix of vulnerability, wonder, steely resolve and tender heartbreak, Wood’s radiance and sorrow, her occasional skittish moments underscoring how she reaches out to Vanya at the end – all should leave anyone streaming too as Jones’ Vanya does.

Astrov’s blindness – touches of snobbery and vanity – combine with Sonya’s scandalous lack of education to rob them both of a happy union. Refinement you realize is what Astrov yearns for after administering morphine to crushed workers. You wonder though if Astrov would always reach out to some phantasm of renewal taller than one of his replanted trees. We should be grateful this production will stand tall forever.