“Life is the same only worse,” a sentiment that seems to reflect so much about our mood in the last few years, spoken by Uncle Vanya in Conor McPherson’s new version of the play. Notably departing from Chekhov’s original here and there, this adaptation, which has a little settling to do ahead of its Press Night later this week, emphasises the comedy scenarios and personalities in Chekhov’s timeless play while still drawing out its major themes – ageing, purposelessness, the challenge of intellectualism in rural societies and, modern audiences may be surprised to note, even climate change.
Uncle Vanya is a play that rarely leaves the West End for long with at least three major productions in a decade. In fact, Chekhov has felt very much in vogue of late with several productions in the last few years taking illuminating approaches to his best-known works. Famously heavy-going and often encased in oppressive sets and stifling costume, a new wave of directors and designers have liberated the emotional undercurrents that thrum through Chekhov’s plays, a fragile humanity clinging to existence and lost in the travails of daily life. The clarity of these new directional approaches is finally cutting through the period fustiness in which his work had been too long preserved.
Ian Rickson’s latest attempt essentially situates Uncle Vanya in a similar social and political existence as last year’s sensational Rosmersholm. A vast, light-filled room on a sizeable estate outside of which the world is struggling; the local community are poverty-stricken and plagued by illness while in the house long-buried emotions rise to the surface prompted by and maypoled around the arrival of Yelena, wife to Vanya’s brother The Professor, staying temporarily to complete his latest paper. Like Rosmersholm, Rickson lays bare the intricacies of the household, its politics, familial resentments, assumptions and buried passions as the characters contemplate lives of unfulfillment in which endurance rather than happiness is their only satisfaction.
But McPherson’s approach is far lighter than the themes of the play might suggest, recognising not just that audiences want to be entertained as well as moved, but also that Chekhov’s work has always had its skewering moments of social satire that examine the ridiculous pomposity of individuals or situations. McPherson emphasises the lightly comic overtones to Acts One and Two by giving Vanya a clown-like levity as he criticises the dry scholastic achievements of his brother and, in Act Two, enjoys a a period of drunken revelry with neighbour Dr Astrov and dependent Telegin, a well-managed high-point in a show that finds humour wherever it can.
This focus also gives this adaptation a more relaxed feel than previous attempts, thereby creating a more credible group dynamic among the various residents, guests and visitors to the family, people long established in each other’s company who descries the stiff conventions of polite society that so often govern interactions in Chekhov productions. McPherson applies this in equal measure to the language in his script and while the characters are not quite speaking in colloquial patterns, the formality and artificiality of traditional language is something McPherson eschews in favour of a more natural selection of words and phrases. It is a subtle but meaningful decision that trades the sometimes archaic construction of most translation for an everyday speech that once again reflects and reinforces the over-familiarity of these people with one another.
Humour, then, runs to a degree throughout the play and while the conversations naturally darken as the dramatic currents are resolved (or as much as Chekhov’s characters earn any form of resolution), McPherson gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of extreme behaviours, especially when Vanya and the Professor go head-to-head in Act Three. Yet, ahead of Press Night, there is a downside to this approach which sometimes cuts into the emotional subplots and dramatic intensity. This is not, for example, a production that feels like a grand tragedy with even some of the significant emotional revelations and confrontations provoking smatterings of laughter. McPherson writes these elements well – and perhaps controversially gives three characters brief monologues to the audience to explore how they are reduced and caged by the events of the play – but as the balance tends primarily to the comic, it comes slightly at the expense of its other drivers.
For Uncle Vanya – like many of Chekhov’s plays – is ultimately about the essential nature of people and their inability to escape the confines of themselves. They talk frequently of freedom, the hopeful future ahead, the joys of nature and better lives in the cities they will never go to, but their existence is bound by the room in which they stand. Drama, respite and ultimately self-realisation comes from the introduction of characters temporarily taken out of their rightful context and here, in Rickson’s production, duel ripples are created by the regular visits of Dr Astrov and, more determinedly, by the presence of Yelena.
The core individuals in this play are seeking some kind of release or escape from the frustratingly ordinary routines of their daily life by looking to others who fail to observe their emotional needs, a strand to which McPherson and Rickson bring considerable clarity. Passions are deeply felt but isolated and unrequited for the most part, the object of their affection does nothing to instigate or encourage a feeling they don’t return or even notice. Sonya’s six-year affection for Astrov, Vanya and Astrov’s infatuation with Yelena are all doomed, with much to say about the blindness of characters to see beyond their own state or truly read the feelings of others. The selfish and arguable lack of empathy with which this group view one another is striking here and it is only through rejection that self-realisation is possible for each of them. Ultimately Chekhov argues, no one can save you but yourself.
And while comedy dominates, the emotional heart of this version of Uncle Vanya, surprisingly is not the sweet but insipid affection of Sonya who cannot even speak of her feelings, or the ephemeral presence of the sleepwalking Yelena, but it is the reawakening of Dr Astrov whose dormant connection to the present is full-bloodedly revived. From the first moments of the play we glimpse something broken in Astrov, almost a hint of PTSD emerging from the terrible medical sights he’s seen and his recent failure to save a particular life that haunts him. The middle of a struggle is a tough place for an actor to begin, but Richard Armitage perfectly hits the intense sadness and interior confusion that introduce the tragic doctor to the audience in the earliest moments of this play.
Astrov is a man who cannot bear to live in the present, and looks only to surviving his lot in order to play his part in a better future, a frequent refrain being the improved quality of life the population a century hence will enjoy which brings him an existential comfort. His attempts to stem the tide of local deforestation erupt in lively exclamations from Armitage who blossoms through his enthusiasm for nature, while acutely living without love or purpose within his day-to-day profession.
Having shut-down all emotional responses or belief in personal happiness, Armitage is especially good at showing Astrov’s complete indifference to Sonya, not only avoiding her evident feelings but seeming to have no knowledge of them at all. So passion, when it does come, surprises and confounds him as entirely as it consumes. It burns slowly at first, a few shy glances in Act One at Yelena, as though testing his ability to withstand it, before erupting into something more fervent and soulful as he urges her to acknowledge the feeling between them. Armitage is wonderful and moving in his distress, forced to repack his armour by the end of the play, almost perplexed by his own conduct and the emotions that momentarily and so violently poured forth. His experience is really the emotional centre of the production and a meaningful return after a five year stage hiatus.
Toby Jones’s Vanya has to navigate quite different extremes of character, layering a sheen of foolishness over the inner turmoil his character experiences in the early sections of the play. Obsessed with the advancing years at 47 and what in retrospect appears to be a wasted life, this put-upon Vanya jokes and blunders his way through various conversations, always assuming the role as family jester. Jones enjoys the comedy easing the audience into the play with warmly received asides and sarcastic jibes that emphasise his displeasure but only reinforce the set structure in which the family has organised itself, working to support the Professor as the most intellectually gifted.
It is only later in the play that this Vanya shakes off those expectations and stakes a claim to an estate that he has worked hard to maintain, a moment that surprises others with its ferocity and hysteria. Jones and Ciaran Hinds’s arrogantly self-serving Professor have a bitter conflagration, one of the production’s most dramatic but enjoyably staged sequences. Within the performance, Jones could do a little more to seed these frustrations earlier to make sense of the scale of Vanya’s reaction here and the same with Vanya’s oft-declared love for Yelena which seems less deeply felt than the production implies, leaving the audience appreciating her exasperation with the slightly empty neediness that Vanya exudes. The tonal approach tips the balance slightly too far into the comedy, fractionally drawing intensity away from the crescendo of desperation and unhappiness that mark Vanya’s final transition later in the play.
The female leads contrast well as Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya suggests an unimposing innocence that prevents her from attaining her dream of being Mrs Astrov. Sonya is ever the peace-maker, attentive, capable and kind but Wood aptly demonstrates her lack of courage, her failure to find a strong insistent voice that can take charge of the squabbles around her or even to fight for a different kind of life for herself, instead preferring resignation and acceptance. Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena is by contrast an accidentally destructive force and clearly marked out from the others by a quite different style of dress that simultaneously embraces but pretends to ignore her sexuality. This Yelena drifts abstractedly from room to room, suffocating in the country air and barely able to exist, yet is equally unmoved, bored even by the ardent attentions of others that she seems to feel have nothing to do with her. There is neither encouragement nor censure in Eleazar’s measured, dreamlike performance that creates a riveting otherness in Yelena with only the smallest hint of untrammeled depths in the play’s final scenes.
With no scene changes, Rae Smith’s painterly design, lit beautifully by Bruno Poet, is full of rundown charm, a great house fallen to disrepair but full of comfort and solace. The streaming sunlight through the large windows adjoined by the forest that forces its way into the house reflect the play’s themes while, as the drama unfolds, the ensuing darkness and change of seasons is visibly reflected when summer gives way to autumn in every sense. This Uncle Vanya is more roundedly entertaining than other recent productions and while that detracts a little from the emotional undercurrents of the original, the fluidity and richness of Rickson’s production, performed by an excellent cast, ensure a satisfying Chekhovian conclusion where life, as Vanya states, is the same but worse.