One of the big critical successes on the London stage just as the first lockdown came into force was a version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It was then filmed post lockdown with the intention of cinema broadcasting it in the autumn. I’m not altogether sure whether that happened or not – I’ve lost track a bit with the hokey cokey nature of cultural venues opening and closing repeatedly. Whatever the case, it can now be found on the BBC iPlayer so access is simplicity itself. Unlike other streamed versions of plays this is not an attempt to replicate the experience of watching a live drama unfold (as with the National Theatre broadcasts) but a film/TV version of a piece played on a stage but without a live audience. I’d say not to worry about these fine distinctions but just sit back and enjoy some consummate stagecraft.
While Chekhov may not be everybody’s first choice for entertainment, this version by Conor McPherson is right of the moment as it captures a group of people bored with being cooped up in their own environment and, although they are not there because of the ravages of a disease, the effect is pretty much as if they were. Characters mope around at loose ends, occasionally getting drunk and sniping at one another. Those that are not combative, are busy falling in love with the wrong people; above all they are imbued with a sense that life is passing them by (a familiar Chekhovian trope) and if only they could break free, they would be infinitely better off. “I could have been another Dostoevsky, another Schopenhauer” declares Vanya miserably as he contemplates the waste of his life and his unrequited passion for his brother-in-law’s second wife, Yelena. Vanya’s young niece Sonya, meanwhile idolises the unaware Doctor Astrov. “I’m equally as miserable as you are”, Sonya reminds her uncle. Astrov also has a passion for Yelena, Mariya (Vanya’s mother) puts the pompous egotistical Serebryakov on a pedestal while aging servant Nana puts her faith in the deity. Far from sorting out their own lives, these are characters all looking to someone else to get them through the tedium of existence – there’s surely a contemporary lesson to be learned from all this.
This is a top notch cast headed by Toby Jones as Vanya, his recent OBE fully justified in this soaring performance. Jones’s rumpled appearance and often Eeyorish demeanour tell us plenty about the character before he even opens his mouth. The flashes of anger as he comes to realise how others (and himself) have let him down are a masterclass. At the end, his silent presence as he starts to go through the bills brings the play to a poignant conclusion. But this is not a one man play and the supporting cast are extremely well chosen. Rosalind Elezar makes more of Yelena than is often the case and moves her on from being simply a bored dilettante. Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya is disarmingly charming as she puts the feelings of others ahead of her own interests. The character of Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage) introduces a timely note of environmental concern even as he gets sucked into the vortex of family politics. Maybe it was the news of the Washington Capitol siege, but I couldn’t help thinking of Donald Trump in Roger Allam’s portrayal of Serebryakov. Entirely motivated by his own ego and perceived needs he betrays the other family members and plans to sell the estate out from under them (hmmm!) The scene where he explains his plans to the family takes fire as Allam and Jones square off to each other – a real moment of theatrical fireworks with both actors on point throughout.
The set is one that actually looks like it has been inhabited, with much of it having the ramshackle quality of a living room used by all sorts of different personalities. Indeed, Rae Smith’s design is a thing of muted beauty and the shafts of light orchestrated by Bruno Poet stream through the high windows of the set to pierce the Chekhovian gloom. One niggle which annoyed in close ups – didn’t anyone think to remove or obscure the rather prominent and modern “Fire door – Keep shut” notice on one of the side doors and which regularly appeared behind actors’ heads? Ian Rickson’s impeccable direction finds exactly the right rhythm to sustain this lengthy piece and the use of direct address at various points is a winning idea – at least on a TV screen. If you’ve always meant to watch more Chekhov (and I have to admit I’m remarkably deficient on that front) then starting with this account of an acknowledged masterpiece is probably an excellent idea. As it’s available for another eleven months and there’s not much else happening, you’ve really got no excuse.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Uncle Vanya is available on the BBC iPlayer – click here
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