Review: Uncle Vanya

Anton Checkhov’s 1899 play Uncle Vanya resonates with modern audiences differently when compared to the play’s intended audience, and this is epitomised by the latest production. The cast is filled with well-known faces, although these actors are more familiar swinging a metal detector or flying an aeroplane they adapt to the heightened tone, creating an exaggerated realism that does not permit the audience a moment to relax.

The play covers all facets of depression; every single character on stage becomes eroded as they clash with one another in an ever descending spiral. Each have their own emptiness and despair – the fear of dying unsuccessful, the knowledge of a wasted life, trapped in a meaningless job or every variation of unrequited love. Each is agonisingly real, even characters with fleeting stage time have visible and harrowing pain. In this bleak setting even the natural world deteriorates, Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage) explains that the local forests, his only real passion and source of life for the rural community, is being worn away with no respite in site. Over 100 years on, the inevitable doomsday Astrov warns of has only become closer, making his hopeless plea ever more poignant.

This total disintegration is reflected in the staging of Uncle Vanya. All four acts take place in one room, a decaying grand hall of an outdated country house. The grimy windows and mis-matched, awkward furniture have overtones of sickly brown. They stagnate upon the stage, evoking to the audience the same trapped emotions the characters experience.

From Youtube Still / London Theatre

The acting is stellar. Richard Armitage portrays the ingrained despair of Dr Astrov. He seems utterly drained, Armitage somehow even managing to make his wild drunken scene and doomed love appear steeped in hopelessness. Toby Jones, the titular Vanya, has an exhaustion that never leaves, and since he barely leaves the stage this permeates everything. His lament-like soliloquy is as forlorn as it is impressive. Aimee Lou Wood covers the most character development, beginning as Sonya – the only hopeful character – and ending as Sonya – the girl abandoned and ruined by fate. Wood’s acting is subtly deliberate, her decline has believably incremental steps. Roger Allam, playing Professor Serebryakov, is simultaneously the heart of the play and a side character. The character’s leaps from despondency to selfish pettiness would jar with a lesser actor, yet Allam makes each reversal perfectly natural.

Tension builds throughout the play and, like stars around a blackhole, the characters are drawn into each other and destruction ensues. This finally bursts in the chaotic climax of Act III, a noisy, cathartic-like release. However, the sudden switch to silence straight after warns the audience that this was not the solution, Act IV returns to the unrelenting anxiety. Ilya Ilych (Peter Wight) continues to play the same, monotonous tune on his guitar that he has throughout which, like the ticking of a bomb, unsettles what would be a hopeful speech to end the play. The lighting on stage slowly becomes darker and the audience is left with the impression the future is just as dark for these characters.

Uncle Vanya feels uncomfortably familiar to a modern audience. Be it the distressingly modern discussion of ecological destruction or the distressingly modern exploration of depression, it does not feel like a play written 122 years ago. However, with the pandemic and the climate crisis looming over us, just as the Russian Revolution was looming over Checkov, perhaps it is not so surprising his fears resonate so greatly with us. The cast, staging and lighting of this production all work to bring home to an audience just how similar the past is and how little it has changed.

-Kiera Riordan

The performance is available on BBC iPlayer

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube / Official London Theatre

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