DRAMA | Comedy | Musicals | Fringe | Archive | HOME



 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Uncle Vanya

For the archive we file reviews of several past productions of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

Donmar 2002 - Gate 2009 - Print Room 2012 - Vakhtangov Theatre 2012 - Vaudeville 2012 - Mossovet State Academic Theatre 2014 - St James 2014 - Almeida 2016 - Hampstead 2018 - Pinter 2020

Uncle Vanya Donmar Warehouse, Autumn 2002

The very best of Chekhov's plays - The Three Sisters, The Sea Gull - are at the very pinnacle of world drama, matched only by a half-dozen Shakespeares and maybe a very few others. So when I rank Uncle Vanya a bit below them, that still means it's a pretty impressive work.

Vanya is the manager of an estate that belonged to his late sister, and he and his niece have been sending its profits to the sister's husband, a famous professor. Now the professor comes to visit with his new young wife, and both Vanya and the neighbourhood doctor fall in love with her. Meanwhile Vanya is beginning to realise that the professor is a fraud and he has wasted his life in his service, the niece loves the doctor, and a few other members of the household have their own stories.

The best Vanya I ever saw was Michael Gambon in 1988, playing a man who suddenly comes face-to-face with his own irrelevance, and thus making the play seem to anticipate both Kafka and Beckett in its starkness. Director Sam Mendes, in his farewell production as head of the Donmar, has taken a different approach, reducing the play to its simplest human terms and thus making us focus on that most chekhovian of discoveries, the small tragedies of small people.

In this production Vanya is simply a chubby unattractive little man hopelessly (in both senses of the word - uncontrollably and with no chance) in love. He's a banal, almost ridiculous figure, but Simon Russell Beale makes him sympathetic just because he is so ordinary and real, and because this one unexpected emotion is so dominating his life - even his anger at his brother-in-law, usually played as the key to his drama, is almost a throwaway distraction.

Each of the other characters is simplified in the same way. For all his love and his enthusiasm for ecology, Mark Strong's doctor is at his core a man disgusted by his own decadence and inertia. Helen McCrory's Yelena is a spiritually dead woman whose only capacity for feeling is a vague mourning for her own lost emotions. Emily Watson's Sonya is no more or less (and thus no more or less sad) than a young girl in love. Even David Bradley's professor makes us feel that his despicable self-pity is real and painful to him.

So what we get is a smaller, less cosmic play than we might be used to, but one whose human dimensions are filled with a sadness we can feel directly. It isn't a total success. Despite the strong playing and Brian Friel's modern-sounding but non-anachronistic adaptation, the play has its longeurs, and scenes that should be powerful, like the Doctor's sudden burst of enthusiasm over his forestry project, don't register. Emily Watson is a bit too healthy-looking for the pining-away Sonya (and it does somewhat warp the play when Sonya is more beautiful than Yelena), but it does make her final speech of hope-in-the-face-of-despair a little less bathetic than it often appears.

Selina Cadell, Anthony O'Donnell and Cherry Morris give strong support in small roles that constantly threaten to steal scenes. This production is a little too sedate in its pacing and quiet in its dramatic effects to recommend to the casual theatre-goer. But those who know the play and can appreciate Mendes' subtle shifts in tone and characterisation, those who know and admire the actors, and those who will enjoy seeing the same cast in Mendes' Twelfth Night playing in repertory with it, will all find its occasional slow stretches worth it.

Gerald Berkowitz 

Vanya  Gate Theatre Autumn 2009

Uncle Vanya, like all Chekhov's plays, operates on many interconnected levels, and Sam Holcroft's new adaptation very skilfully and sensitively slices out one layer for us to look at on its own. The result is not all of Chekhov, but it's in Chekhov, and it's a very sweet, sad and occasionally comic look at love and self-discovery.

Vanya has wasted his life working for his unappreciative brother-in-law, while loving Yelena, who has become the boss's second wife. Meanwhile niece/daughter/stepdaughter Sonya has been pining for the handsome local doctor Astrov, and now Yelena and Astrov meet.

Are you keeping score? Vanya and Astrov love Yelena, Yelena and Sonya love Astrov, and nobody, as they will slowly come to realise, seems able to love either Vanya or Sonya.

There are elements of comedy in that situation, as both Chekhov and Holcroft realise - most evident in the moments when Sonya tries to make the self-absorbed Astrov notice her or when Yelena tries to defuse a too-erotically-charged moment with Astrov by half-heartedly singing Sonya's praises.

But mainly the play - Holcroft's and at least in part Chekhov's - is about the pain of loving and being loved, and interestingly Holcroft draws our attention more to the women than the men,

Vanya, we sense, is too old and set in his loser's ways for us to offer him more than passing pity, and Astrov is too pedantic and self-deluding (He comes across more like the brother-in-law/husband/father in the original than like Chekhov's Astrov) for us to believe he'll suffer much, whatever the outcome.

But Holcroft makes us see a Yelena who has been allowed to be beautiful but nothing else all her life, and who knows that that is all that men can see in her (She's briefly attracted to Astrov because once again she falls prey to the hope that he might be different).

And in Sonya, who is a good soul and wants nothing more than to be loved - or just allowed to love - for the good soul she is, Holcroft gives us a truly Chekhovian character, the small person whose small tragedy we are forced to recognise as real and worthy of our concern.

Much credit to director Natalie Abrahami for seeing the emotional depth and complexity of the play and guiding her actors toward expressing it, and to the cast themselves.

Robert Goodale brings into this Vanya all the other layers of pain the character carries in Chekhov, while Simon Wilson properly makes Astrov a cold, self-absorbed zealot rather than the amiable amateur of the original. 

But it is Susie Trayling's Yelena, moving from seemingly implacable cool to despair and then self-disgust for using her feminine wiles and for hoping they weren't what was attracting the doctor; and especially Fiona Button's Sonya, taking us from girlish shyness to adult passion to agonised rejection to resignation and stoic carrying-on, who have the play's hardest emotional journeys and who hold our attention and sympathy throughout.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   The Print Room   Spring 2012

Like all Chekhov's great plays, Uncle Vanya is a richly textured and subtle collection of character studies, a demonstration that everyone, however insignificant, is living a private drama that is – at least for that small person – a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Lucy Bailey's production simplifies things, focusing one one or two aspects of each character, and on that level the play is always clear and frequently moving. 

Vanya and his niece Sonya have spent their lives managing the family estate for his brother-in-law, a pompous professor. A visit from the professor and his new young wife Yelena makes Vanya aware of how unappreciated and wasted his work has been, while falling in love with Yelena just adds another pathetic failure to his record. Meanwhile the local doctor also falls for Yelena, Sonya pines away in unrequited love for the doctor, and Yelena herself realises she contributes nothing to life beyond being pretty. 

There is much more to each character, as other productions have shown. Vanya, for example, is not just angry at having wasted his efforts in unappreciated sacrifice, but realises that he has turned himself into the sort of person who will inevitably be ignored and unappreciated. It's not just that he doesn't get the girl, but that he understands that he is the sort of person who never gets the girl. His tragedy is not just that he is unhappy, but that he fully comprehends that he will always be unhappy, and that his unhappiness is of no interest whatever to the universe. 

And each of the other characters, with the possible exception of the self-satisfied professor, has an equivalent set of self-discoveries. (Of course, part of Chekhov's genius is that while he shows us how irrelevant and insignificant these people's pains are, he makes them real and significant to us.) 

Rather than attempting to capture all of this (as too few productions can) director Bailey and her actors have chosen to sacrifice complexity to clarity, choosing one or two notes for each to define the character by. The result is a play and a portrait of life that is simpler than the one Chekhov wrote but that is undeniably within it – not at all Chekhov-lite, but Chekhov with some things spotlighted and others left barely visible in the shadows. 

Your primary impression of Iain Glen's Vanya is of a worm turning, the exploited finally exploding at his oppressor in rage and then, having powerfully but ultimately ineffectually displayed the depth of his passion, returning to his drudgery worse off than he was before, because there has been no catharsis. We never really believe his love for Yelena, because the actor hasn't been guided (or allowed?) to show us anything more than the defeated man from the start. 

William Houston's doctor moans about how wasted and useless he feels stuck in the country and voices the inevitable-in-Chekhov dreams that future generations might be happier, but he enjoys his vodka too much to be tragic and he's just a little too good at wooing Yelena for us to really believe his desperation, coming across more as oily seducer than ardent lover.

Lucinda Millward touchingly captures Yelena's awareness of her own uselessness, but misses the suggestion that, just out of habit, she can't help using the sexual power that is all that she's got. And Charlotte Emmerson's Sonya is a moving personification of despair and dashed hopes, but so much so that her last-minute aria of grasping-at-straws faith doesn't ring true. 

So director and actors all capture a piece of each character and present it with sometimes revelatory power. The result is a bit like hearing a symphony orchestra with some of the instruments removed. Those that remain stand out with unprecedented and exciting clarity, but it isn't the whole symphony.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   Noel Coward Theatre  November 2012

Moscow's Vakhtangov Theatre is in London for only six performances of its award-winning Uncle Vanya, in Russian with English titles. 

There are surely six performances' worth of lovers of Russian drama and Russian theatre in London, and I would urge them to take the opportunity for a fascinating and rewarding experience. Casual theatregoers can be excused for deciding this is not for them. 

The key to this production is to realise that, just as English directors and actors continually feel the need to re-think and re-imagine Shakespeare, so Russians search for fresh ways to approach and understand Chekhov. 

Director Rimas Tuminas seems to have taken his cue from Chekhov's oft-quoted assertion that his plays were comedies at their core, and looks in this production to see whether an ironic take will illuminate things that more reverential productions miss. 

Uncle Vanya is a play about a group of people who all face the realisation that, in different ways, their lives have been empty and meaningless, and about their different responses (ranging from denial to despair) to this revelation. Tuminas forestalls any automatic sympathy for the characters by portraying most of them as self-dramatising poseurs half-enjoying their own misery. 

The play's opening image – the production is full of striking tableaux – is of Doctor Astrov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) weighed down by life like Willy Loman, and holding the pose just a little too long for us to believe it. The Professor (Vladimir Simonov) relishes his importance by always moving in stately slow-motion, keeping his retinue two steps behind him, Elena (Anna Dubrovskaya) shows her unhappiness by posing prettily in positions of languid sensuality out of a fashion magazine, and Vanya (Sergey Makovetsky) is a bit of a buffoon, rushing about and tripping over himself like a child eager to show off his scabbed knee. 

Those characters and those moments that aren't distanced from us by their own posing are undercut by slapstick action and irrelevant business around the periphery – a couple of minor characters are virtually circus clowns and two kissing scenes in the text are turned into potentially disturbing semi-rapes, only to be interrupted and brought down to earth by comic interruptions. 

And through it all, Faustas Latenas' constant and overpowering emotion-cueing 'movie music' keeps threatening to lower the whole thing to the level of bad TV soap opera. 

One can guess at director Tuminas' purpose here – if the play can survive this deliberate deconstructing, then what comes through must be true and strong. And it is noteworthy that the one character who is not undercut in any significant way is Sonya. 

Playing her much younger than we're used to, almost as a child, Maria Berdinskikh makes Sonya the moral centre of the play, her unhappiness unquestioned and therefore her courage in facing a never-to-be-fulfilled life at the end unambiguously moving.

And more than in any other production, it is Sonya rather than Vanya who is the measure by which we judge the others – Elena's inability to profit from her self-discovery, Astrov's ultimate coldness and egocentricity, and even Vanya's collapse into total despair. 

There is plenty that is foreign to us in this production, and plenty to disturb and annoy those used to more conventional stagings. But the fact that the play survives this and that things hitherto unnoticed or unappreciated are illuminated fully justifies the experiment.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya  Vaudeville Theatre Winter 2012-2013

This is a great disappointment. Despite the presence of a talented cast, Lindsay Posner's new production of Chekhov's classic fails almost completely to create a reality, explore the characters, communicate the playwright's vision or offer much in the way of an evening's entertainment. 

As I have had occasion to remark before, when everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same ways, they have been merely following direction or, as it sometimes seems here, floundering in the absence of direction, and all blame must be laid at the feet of the director. 

Uncle Vanya is about a group of people who each individually face the realisation that their lives have been wasted and meaningless, with their reactions ranging from denial to despair to blindly or heroically carrying on regardless. Thus, like all of Chekhov's plays, it depends entirely on our believing in these characters and recognising that, as trivial as their little tragedies may be, they are of immense importance to those living the tragedy. 

But here we are hard-pressed to care about any of these characters, because the actors never seem to inhabit them and therefore we never get to know them. 

The recurring sense emanating from the stage is of actors still feeling their way into the play and panicking a bit at having to perform unprepared. Their uncertainty comes across in blank line readings, unmotivated pauses and delayed or absent reactions, giving the impression of an early rehearsal, when the actors have learned their lines but not found the rhythms of their speeches and scenes, and certainly not found the reality of their emotions and interactions. 

Ken Stott is a remarkable actor whose stock in trade is anchoring his characters in a man-on-the-street reality – we believe what he does onstage because we feel we have seen that person in everyday life. But here as Vanya he gives an almost totally external performance made up of bits of business and actor's tricks, with no sense of the man inside. 

As Yelena, Anna Friel must depict a woman so beautiful that even totally passively she makes men fall in love with her. Friel is a beautiful woman, but here she generates no sexual energy whatever and so not only don't we see why they are falling for her, but her Yelena doesn't even seem particularly beautiful. 

The character of Astrov is a mass of contradictions, an idealist (He is the obligatory 'Two hundred years from now life will be beautiful and we must work toward that' character in every Chekhov play) who is without emotions beyond a bit of half-hearted lust, constantly bemoaning how crude he has become and how much better he wishes he could be. But the usually reliable Sam West seems unable to find any of those pieces, much less tie them together in a recognisable character. 

Only Laura Campbell as Sonya, at first simply a love-sick girl but then the one who faces the emptiness before her with the greatest courage, is able to create a believable character, and it is noteworthy that her scenes, and particularly the aria of faith with which she ends the play, come closest to playing naturally and conversationally. 

When everyone is bad, and bad in the same ways, the fault is the director's. Whether this play was simply too far outside Lindsay Posner's emotional range for him to be able to engage with it, or whether he just wasn't committed, he has seriously underserved his cast, his playwright and his audience.

Gerald Berkowitz

Online Cashback

Uncle Vanya   Wyndham's Theatre   Spring 2014

Moscow's Mossovet State Academic Theatre visits London for a short season of two Chekhov plays in repertory, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters (performed in Russian with adequate but frequently unsynchronised surtitles), and the most interesting thing about both productions is what they say about Russian attitudes toward their greatest playwright. 

Like some English directors of Shakespeare, Andrei Konchalovsky rejects the idea of the plays as museum-piece classics but sees them as open to re-interpretation for each generation, and also like some English directors, he can't resist gilding perfectly adequate lilies, not always to their benefit. 

The guiding principle of his Uncle Vanya seems to be to eliminate all hints of tragedy or depth. The Vanya of actor Pavel Derevyanko is a fool and little more – at one point he actually wears a clown's nose and he always seems on the verge of banana-peel pratfalls. 

I've seen two great Vanyas in my half-dozen experiences of this play. Michael Gambon played a man who looked into the abyss and saw the horror of his own total irrelevance, while Simon Russell Beale discovered a chubby little man facing the realisation that he would never ever be loved. The Vanya here faces life with nothing worse than the embarrassment of having made a more than usual fool of himself when he tried to shoot the Professor. 

The other men in the play are equally reduced. Alexander Domogarov's Astrov is well along the path to dissipation when the play opens, and gives little reality to either the manliness that attracts Elena and Sonya or the idealism of his ecological speeches, while Vladas Bagdonas focusses on the Professor's self-pitying hypochondria rather than his presumptuous egotism. 

The women fare somewhat better, Nataliya Vdovina giving Elena enough depth to generate some sympathy and Yulia Vysotskaya quietly establishing Sonya as the moral centre of the play until a misguided attempt by the director to do something new with her great final aria. 

Elsewhere, director Konchalovsky's style seems to be a catch-all of effects unrelated to each other or to the play. A set made up of solid furniture but no walls, with 'offstage' actors visible at its sides and onstage scene changes, hints at a 'Brechtian' approach that is a couple of generations out of date in the West, while covering the scene changes with films and sounds of modern urban automobile traffic makes no clear point at all. 

Seeing this play alongside The Three Sisters calls attention to a few more directorial tics. Garden swings appear in both plays for no clear symbolic reason, as does a ghostly and unidentified woman in white. Sexual violence is introduced into both – here Astrov almost rapes Elena, there Soleny attacks Irina. 

In a programme note the director writes that he and Chekhov see life as 'boring, dirty, aimless and provincial'. He's wrong about Chekhov, but maybe he had to try this production to understand that.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   St James Theatre  Autumn 2014

This is a not-particularly-good production of a not-particularly-interesting adaptation of a play great enough not to need an adapter's help and worthy of better acting and direction. 

Anya Reiss specialises in modernised versions of Chekhov, and Uncle Vanya has been moved from pre-revolutionary Russia to twenty-first century England, with no discernible improvement. 

Apart from some dodgy accents, Astrov's maps are on a laptop, Vanya leaves love notes for Yelena on Post-Its, and there are passing references to cellphones, the internet and the like. 

Meanwhile the plot and characterisations remain the same even though some elements, like everyone's past reverence for the professor, don't ring quite so true in the modern setting. 

Vanya and his niece Sonya have run the family farm for thirty years, sending all the profits to Sonya's academic father, now here on a visit with his younger wife. Vanya and local doctor Astrov fall in love with Yelena, Sonya loves Astrov, the professor's total lack of appreciation drives Vanya into a rage, and the visitors leave, with everyone else sinking into despair. 

There is the material for real tragedy here. A decade or so ago Simon Russell Beale showed us a Vanya facing the realisation that he would never ever be loved; a decade before that Michael Gambon's Vanya stared into the abyss of his total irrelevance to the world. 

But, as directed by Russell Bolam, John Hannah can reach no deeper than Vanya's mildly ridiculous mooning about over Yelena and his explosion of built-up frustration at Serebryakov – both believable, both sympathetic, but both rather small emotions never approaching the tragic. 

Much the same is true of Amanda Hale's Sonya, quietly pathetic in her unrequited love but too easily forgotten when she's offstage; Joe Dixon's Astrov, loud and attention-demanding but with too few hints of the wasted depths that attract the women; and Rebecca Night's Yelena, never really facing the fact of her own emptiness. 

When everyone in a play is – well, not bad, but stopping too short of their characters' potentials, then the fault lies with a director unable or disinclined to take them any further. And Russell Bolam's failures don't stop there. 

With rare moments of exception, he doesn't create a reality for all these characters to share. In too many scenes anyone who is not speaking simply shuts down, not responding to what is going on. 

One character's speech will be followed by a noticeable second of pause until someone wakes up, realises it's his cue, speaks his line and then turns off again while we wait for the next speaker to come alive. Nobody listens, nobody thinks about or reacts to what's being said or done, nobody seems to be inhabiting the same reality as everyone else. 

All the actors I've named, along with the always reliable Jack Shepherd as Serebryakov, have moments that work, but neither their talents nor the play's own considerable merits can triumph over such inadequate direction.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   Almeida Theatre February-March 2016

Director Robert Icke's adaptation from Chekhov is very slow warming up. But it gets there eventually, producing a powerful and moving human drama that rewards those with patience.

A reminder: Vanya and his niece Sonya have run the family estate for decades, sending all the income to Sonya's father, a university professor.

Events combine to make Vanya aware that not only has their work gone unappreciated, but the professor is a small-souled man unworthy of their sacrifices. The sudden realisation that his life has been wasted all-but-destroys Vanya.

Typically for Chekhov, other characters in the play undergo parallel life-shattering epiphanies around the same time. The trigger for all the individual dramas is the appearance of the professor with his beautiful young second wife Elena.

Falling hopelessly in love with her makes Vanya aware of everything else missing from his life. The local doctor also comes under her spell, Sonya hopelessly loves the doctor, and the new wife herself is shaken to discover how little she has to offer any of them.

Robert Icke modernises and Anglicises the play, to no evident purpose. Vanya is now Uncle Johnny, tea is drunk out of cups and mugs rather than glasses, there are a few stray obscenities, and an unfortunately observed kiss is now some decorously simulated sex, but Chekhov is not enriched, clarified or made more accessible by any of this.

(Icke also breaks the play's reality a few times by turning some of the self-exposing monologues into direct address, the actors literally stepping off the stage to explain themselves to the audience.)

Robert Icke directs with glacier-slow pacing that may have been meant to give us time to learn more about the characters but merely makes us aware of how little seems to be going on much of the time. The play runs over three hours, and a half-hour at least could have been cut without losing a line of dialogue.

It isn't until well into the third hour that the dramatic power of Chekhov's vision really comes through, as actor Paul Rhys makes Johnny look into the abyss of his own irrelevance and show us a man in true pain.

It is about the same time that each of the other major characters have their epiphanies, making what amounts to the third act of a four-act structure a concentrated human drama that fully engages your attention and emotions (before director Icke almost dissipates it all by dragging out the last act interminably).

The director deserves credit for guiding the actors to those moments of emotional reality and intensity, and also for helping them find some new colours in the characters.

Paul Rhys takes the risk of making Johnny seem just a lovesick fool for the first half of the play before revealing that the man's real pain is much deeper than that. Jessica Brown Findlay gives Sonya some touches of typical adolescent petulance that are nicely humanising and actually endearing.

In contrast Tobias Menzies makes the doctor more consciously manipulative of the women, giving up some of the sympathy the man might have inspired and generously keeping him from distracting us from John, while Vanessa Kirby lets us see that the same shallowness that Elena is shocked to find in herself also protects her from feeling too bad.

There is no escaping the fact that this version of Uncle Vanya is a long and heavy slog, but if you can hang in there your patience will be fully rewarded.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   Hampstead Theatre Winter 2018-2019

This is a good Uncle Vanya, perhaps a very good one. If it is not a great Uncle Vanya, that might be too much to ask for.

One aspect of Chekhov's genius was his ability to show us the little lives and little tragedies of little people and make us see that those lives and tragedies were big to them.

A good production makes us overcome our preliminary dismissal of these people as small and sympathise with their real-to-them pains. A great production makes us feel that those tragedies are in fact greater than we first thought, shaking us as well as the characters.

Three decades ago Michael Gambon played a Vanya who came face to face with his own total irrelevance to the world, and sixteen years ago Simon Russell Beale made us watch a man realise that he would never ever be loved.

In Terry Johnson's new adaptation and production, Alan Cox plays a Vanya who has some bad experiences and is left unhappy by them. We sympathise, but we do not feel the full force of his pain with him.

Vanya and his niece Sonia run the family estate for Sonia's father, a Moscow professor. But a visit from the professor shows him a vain, empty, unappreciative egotist not worthy of their sacrifices, while his beautiful new wife Yeliena can only express mild annoyance when Vanya falls in love with her. Meanwhile Astrov, the local doctor, also falls for Yeliena, blind to the fact that Sonia loves him.

As Alan Cox plays him, Vanya is a man who rather enjoys grumbling about his life only to realise painfully that he actually is as unhappy as he has been claiming to be.

The shock almost breaks him, but not in a way that we can do more than sympathise with from a safe distance, and there is just enough of a hint of getting-what-he-deserves to distance us further.

The two women are played stronger than usual here, with good effect. Alice Bailey Johnson's Sonia doesn't just mope around as too many Sonias do. She clearly wears the trousers in this family, bullying the men and fighting admirably to retain some dignity in despair.

Abbey Lee takes all the opportunities the script allows her to show that Yeliena is at least aware of her own shallowness and feels some guilt for it, but gives too little indication of how and why she is attracted to Astrov. Robin Soans seems unsure whether to play the professor as villain or just sad old man.

Alec Newman is a particular disappointment as Astrov who, aside from being Vanya's rival for Yeliena's love, is the obligatory the-future-will-be-better idealist who appears in all Chekhov's plays.

The scene in which he shows Yeliena his maps of the region and fears for the vanishing forests should be driven by the intensity of his passion for his subject, which then mutates into a sexual energy between them. But here the focus of the scene is on her boredom, and he sinks into just some nut nattering on about his private obsessions.

I've seen worse Uncle Vanyas that couldn't even generate any respect or concern for the characters. But by inspiring pity and little more, this one stops short of greatness.

Gerald Berkowitz

Uncle Vanya   Harold Pinter Theatre 2020

This is one of the finest productions I've ever seen of Uncle Vanya – and, indeed, of any Chekhov play – and I urge you to see it.

It is not a happy play, but a deeply involving and moving one. Chekhov shows us a houseful of people who are all unhappy and guides us to accept that it is nobody's fault. Unhappiness is just a fact of life – at least of these people's lives – and the play generates recognition, sympathy and perhaps even acceptance.

Quick summary: Vanya and his niece Sonya have run the family estate for Sonya's father, a respected professor, but Vanya begins to realise that the man is both unappreciative and not really worth all the sacrifices. Meanwhile both Vanya and the local doctor fall in love with the professor's new young wife, while the doctor remains blind to Sonya's love for him.

The stage is set for a lot of disappointment all around, and Chekhov's greatness lies largely in his ability to make us care about all of them, even those who might otherwise function as villains and those who are sometimes more than a bit ridiculous.

When, as sometimes happens, everyone in a cast is bad, the fault lies with the director. And so when everyone in a cast is excellent, much of the credit must go to the director.

Ian Rickson has guided his actors to fully rounded and thoroughly sympathetic characterisations, illuminating some of the figures in fresh ways and creating a world that is thoroughly believable.

Toby Jones has built a career on playing self-pitying little men and bitterly resentful little men, so Vanya was almost an inevitable role for him, and he does it full justice.

Vanya suffers several disappointments in the play, and most of the great actors I've seen in the role have picked one to be the keynote of his experience – the discovery that he's wasted his life, his futile love for Yelena, even his total irrelevance to the universe.

Actor Jones and director Rickman don't focus on any one cause of Vanya's unhappiness but on the unhappiness itself. This is a man who is doomed to be unhappy. It is as much a fact of his life, and as inescapable, as his baldness, and it defines his entire existence.

Decades ago there was an American comic strip character who walked around with his own personal raincloud over his head, so that he lived in perpetual gloom whatever others around him experienced. That's Jones's Vanya, and as comic as the man occasionally is, we cannot help but be moved by his plight. 

And Toby Jones sees and communicates something else about Vanya that too many actors miss. The man has lived with his unhappiness so long that it has become familiar and comfortable, and on some level he actually enjoys complaining.

The other outstanding performance here is by Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya. Sonya spends much of the play moping about mooning over the doctor and is given what is too often a soppy and unconvincing message of blind hope in the play's final speech.

But Wood not only makes her a believable contemporary young woman, with the speech rhythms (credit to Conor McPherson's fluid and natural new adaptation) and body language of a teenager, but also invests her with a strength and good sense that frequently make her the leader in sorting out the others' emotional excesses. Her final aria is not pathetic but reassuring – she will survive and her strength will help the broken Vanya to survive.

Both Rosalind Eleazar's Yelena and Peter Wight's professor are softer and less culpably cold-blooded than the characters are often played, and only Richard Armitage's doctor is a bit of a disappointment.

We need to see what attracts both Sonya and Yelena to him, and Chekhov gives him the opportunity to show us, in a scene in which he expresses his enthusiasm over a pet project and we should sense the sexual energy women would find in such passion. But Armitage doesn't generate that sexiness and the scene goes by almost unnoticed, limiting both his characterisation and those of the two women.

It's a small lapse rather than a crippling one, and practically the only reservation in in an enthusiastic recommendation for this first-rate production.

Gerald Berkowitz

Reviews -  Uncle Vanya 2002-2020
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.

Buy this title at AMAZON.COM or AMAZON.CO.UK