Cultures Theatre

Uncle Vanya at the Pinter: A Revitalising Adaptation

Earlier last year, the very Uncle Vanya now streaming free of charge on the BBC iPlayer was performed live in the flesh at the Harold Pinter Theatre. This was one of those few shows that comes up every once in a while for which there is a sizeable buzz- and everybody I knew was sure as hell talking about it. To say I was disappointed to have missed it is more than an understatement, and so I leaped at the chance to catch it this time around. 

The story begins with Uncle Vanya (Toby Jones) and his niece Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) in the heat of the summer on a crumbling countryside estate, where the greatest excitements include visits by the local doctor, Astrov (Richard Armitage). However, with the arrival of Sonya’s father Professor Serebryakov (Ciarán Hinds) and his new, young, ‘with-little-to-do’ wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), all is turned on its head.  

Whilst Chekhov is a widely appreciated playwright, and whilst I am a personal fan of his, I can understand why many find his plays too slow or too dull. That being said, it is clear to me that this production was not great as a result of any grand, over-arching theme in Chekhov’s play or literary mastery, or by any greatly intellectual means. Of course the writing is good, exploring the nature of work, idleness, beauty, love, lust, and greed, but it is the human quality, moment-by-moment progression in this production that keeps us hooked, intrigued, and invested. So rich with subtle humour, pathos and lightness is this production that, as many reviews have already stated, it is for anybody and everybody to enjoy.  

Having watched a fair few live-streamed plays over quarantine, I was familiar with the format, but something often doesn’t quite fit right; it was neither the atmosphere and electricity of the theatre or the intimacy of screen. However, the combination of wider shots of the whole cast with tighter shots in this production fit together neatly to provide a new kind of experience, and in this respect it was the best piece of streamed theatre that I have ever seen. That being said, the monologue style pieces suddenly given to camera were a rather jarring shift as an observer.  

There is no doubt in my mind that Toby Jones’ performance as Vanya was the one that stole the show, crawling like a big spider across the stage with sorrow and rage exploding from his insides, at other times so deeply rooted in the foundation of the very ground he walks upon; he is the heartbeat of the show, and you miss him when he’s gone. Perhaps his character is particularly relatable in this period of quarantine, where each sentiment seems to hit harder. To quote him exactly: ‘I’ve missed my breakfast. I’ve missed my lunch, and the whole blasted nightmare starts all over again….what news could their possibly be? Everything’s the same as ever, except worse’.  

Credit for this revitalising adaption must be given to Conor McPherson, and I am grateful that the director, unlike in many British productions of Chekhov, did not make the play and its characters and their troubles too English. After all, it is not English- it is set in a country estate in Russia. 

The other standout performance for me was Amy Lou Wood as Sonya, never missing a beat and giving us so much merely with her presence. As many others have already pointed out, every character big or small is fully realised, and Anna Calder-Marshall’s singing voice as Nana is just one example of this. 

Common complaints of the play have been the lack of viable chemistry: whilst some were fond of Richard Armitage’s doctor Astrov, I found his performance a little empty and definitely failed to get his irresistible charm, and so I can agree that this gave little credibility to the supposed tension between him and Rosalind Eleazar playing Yelena. Given that lust and love do drive a lot of the play’s action, this was a shame. 

This review would not be complete without mentioning the beautifully composed sets. There is some argument on whether the design was intended to be contemporary or classic, and on the nature of the symbolism. But in the simplest measure, it was beautiful, expansive, and gave the actors room to do their stuff. Especially kind on the eyes is the set design and lighting on the first night in the play, the night of a storm, with wonderful blue and purple hues, shadows on the walls, rain and lightning. 

In my mind, there is not a beat that is missed in this production, right up until the end. The ending, however, does drag on a little too long with no particular poignancy. However, perhaps this dread is what we should be feeling at this point in the play.  

 Whilst I make some little complaints, there is no doubt in my mind that this was as close to perfect as it gets, and I would gladly call it perfect too – not only as a Chekhov play, nor as a piece of live-streamed theatre, but just as a piece of theatre. This is running with the giants.