Uncle Vanya at the Almeida
Chekhov crafted his plays from the fabric of human experience: here, Robert Ickes stitches together the original fabric with a modern thread in a superb adaption which aligns with the original vision. Ickes veers away from histrionics opting instead for depth of characterisation and ultra-realism.
The actors become people, not roles. Paul Rhys (John/Vanya) is a soft-spoken, tremblingly needy presence onstage, always veering close to an emotional breakdown. The greasy-haired and drably-dressed Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay) is played with the tenderness of a stoical, broken-hearted woman. Vanessa Kirby’s languid movements perfectly embody the dissatisfied Elena, while Tobias Menzies’ doctor combines cynicism with self-absorption and his scenes with Kirby reach sizzling intensity
The tedium of the protagonists’ lives propels the revolving wooden set, only stopping at times of great drama or when characters step out of the action to address the crowd. It is an innovative idea, enabling the audience to see the action from all angles. It also – thanks to the four dominating wooden pillars – obscures the view at certain crucial points, infecting the audience with the same frustration that plagues the characters.
When Chekhov is performed well, it holds a mirror up to the viewers’ lives. Characters drunkenly dancing to Jean Genie are so true to the experience of modern man that the audience can’t help but laugh. It is not necessarily a negative that the play does not convey the Russian melancholy so characteristic of his work, primarily because names are anglicised, with Vanya transposed to John. This is, however, necessary in order for the story to fit into its modern setting: Vanya is an everyman, and the name John embodies this. The frustration of the play centres on characters’ isolation in the countryside, which seems hardly applicable to the accessibility of civilisation enjoyed in contemporary life. But living in the countryside can certainly feel isolating; there is a monotony of nothingness that one is so easily consumed by.
The conservation of trees and people is central to the play, but Ickes also conserves the visceral and unsurpassed genius of Chekhov’s masterpiece. It does not answer, but continues to ask Chekhov’s questions, proving how the uncertainty of the playwright is just as applicable in the present day. This production penetrates the modern mind, questioning worth – for anybody who enjoys theatre, and even for those who don’t, this is a must-see.
Uncle Vanya is on at the Almeida Theatre from 5th February until 26th March 2016, for further information or to book visit here.