Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya opened in January 2020 at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. It was a critically acclaimed production and scheduled to run until May 2, 2020. The pandemic put an end to that and the production closed in March. But all was not lost because the cast was called back and a performance, with all the pandemic precautions taken was filmed and streamed in cinemas and finally on television including PBS this year.
Irish playwright Conor McPherson adapted the play by tightening the dialogue and Ian Rickson directed a superlative production.
The catalyst for the plot is the return of old Professor Serebryakov (Roger Allam) to retire on “his” large estate somewhere in the depths of Russia. He is accompanied by his new, pretty and very young second wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar). While the professor was pursuing his academic work, the estate was managed by Vanya, (Toby Jones), his first wife’s brother and Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), his daughter by his first marriage. We also have Maryia (Dearbhla Molloy), the first wife’s mother, and Dr. Astrov (Richard Armitage) who visits the estate often and plays an important part in the play as well as Telegin (Peter Wright), a former landowner who has fallen on bad times and is now living on the estate.
Chekhov draws scrupulous and discerning portraits of the extended family and guests and gives us a portrait of a group in a crumbling estate and by extension of Russia itself. The director and the cast have the task of portraying the people and the situation in a play that at first glance does not provide a plot that can generate much excitement. The play does, and Rickson and the outstanding cast capture the essence of the play with masterful performances.
Allam gives us an astute portrayal of the Professor who is irascible, hypochondriacal, dreamy and utterly useless. He writes articles that no one reads, has no grasp of practical reality and is extremely limited in what we would call people skills. He wants to sell the estate and buy something in the city and a holiday spot in Finland for his old age. The estate is not his because it belonged to his first wife and therefore legally devolves to his daughter Sonya. And is there enough money to do what he dreams and what about the other people involved?
Yelena married the Professor because she considered him very intelligent and educated and now finds out that she is bored with him. She studied music in St. Petersburg and her touch with practical reality is non-existent. Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena is attractive, frustrated and a sexual lure but she is a prisoner of the entire situation and there is no real escape for her.
Toby Jones as Uncle Vanya is entrapped as well. He has managed the estate for decades and has nothing to show for it. At 47 would be left with nothing at all if it is sold. He cannot sleep at night, naps during the day, misses meals and drinks to excess. He is adrift in the crumbling estate and the Russian wilderness and Jones conveys Vanya’s anger, frustration and bewilderment brilliantly.
Dr. Astrov is the non-family member who captures the mood of the people on the estate and the general despair. He is very intelligent, perceptive and a man who cared about people and nature, especially the primeval forests that surrounded the estate. He has become a doctor who feels dejected, depressed and for whom life has no meaning. He drinks to excess and feels useless. He sees the depredation of the natural surroundings. He is attracted to Yelena but she rejects him. Armitage gives us a superb portrayal of the tragic situation of a good man and by extension the best of Russia going to waste.
Wright as Telegin is a pathetic figure who lost his wealth and now mooches a living from his former neighbours and can do no more than strum a guitar. His nickname Waffles epitomizes him. Anna Calder-Marshall plays the completely sympathetic servant Nana who tries to satisfy the dysfunctional group.
Wood as Sonya is a young girl who falls in love with Astrov but he does not even notice her. She infuses some optimism in the play where there is very little to be hopeful about. When the theft of morphine, a good method for killing pain or ending life and a gunshot both fail, you have reached ultimate despair.
Rae Smith’s design for the cavernous living area of the crumbling estate is excellent. It is large and furnished but looks desolate and unpleasant.
If one can say anything positive about the murderous pandemic, it may be that it forced the cast and crew of Uncle Vanya to get together again and film his outstanding production.
Uncle Vanyaby Anton Chekhov in an adaptation by Conor McPherson was shown on WNED TV on May 9. 2021 and may be seen on streaming media. Check Google for upcoming broadcasts.