Thursday, February 6, 2020


Reviewed by James Karas

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in an adaptation by Conor McPherson receives a masterly production at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Directed by Ian Rickson, the production brings out all the desolation, boredom, despair and unhappiness of the characters as well as providing an image of Russia that is reflected by them.

Uncle Vanya is set on a provincial estate and it is sub-titled “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts.” Indeed, the play is supposed to take place in the garden of the estate, the dining room, the drawing room and Vanya’s room. Rickson and designer Rae Smith have opted for a single set. They use a large room that looks like an undusted space in an abandoned museum. It may have had previous glory but now it looks depressing. 
Toby Jones, Aimee Lou Wood and Rosalind Eleazar. Photo: © Johan Persson
Despite that and the general malaise of the people, the production has considerable humour. In fact, Rickson manages to get a laugh in the first couple of lines and throughout the performance. Marvelous.

Professor Serebryakov (Ciarán Hinds) returns to his estate from his teaching post accompanied by his beautiful, 27-year old second wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) who is about 40 years younger than him. The professor writes books and treatises that no one cares about and are published in journals that no one reads. He is an intellectual who contributes nothing to society. He is what 19th century novelist Ivan Goncharov called Oblomov, an aristocrat and useless human. Hinds is superb in the role and brings out the professor’s hypochondria, lack of common sense and bad temperament.

Dr. Astrov is a middle-aged man who is tired of his profession and is examining the state of the country surrounding the estate. He sees deforestation, destruction and desolation. He is a modern-day climate change watcher who is emotionally barren until he falls in love with Yelena only to be rejected. Richard Armitage is an energetic and sympathetic Astrov who gets nowhere.

Toby Jones is Uncle Vanya. He has been running the estate for twenty years with Sonya, the daughter of the professor by his (the professor’s) first wife. The latter was his sister and the estate belonged to her. Vanya has nothing and if the professor sells the estate as he threatens, he will have nowhere to go. His humour is on par with his emotional outbursts and both are done expertly by Jones in a superb performance.  
Richard Armitage and Peter Wight. Photo © Johan Persson
Eleazar as the beautiful and totally bored Yelena stirs up emotions and creates tensions and complications when Astrov and Vanya fall in love with her. Do we sympathize with Yelena the St. Petersburg snob? Excellent work by Eleazar.
Unreserved kudos go to Anna Calder-Marshall as the old nurse Nana who is humane and tolerant; Dearbhla Molloy as Mariya, Vanya’s mother and the professor’s faithful assistant; Peter Wright as Telegin, an old former landowner who has fallen on bad times; and Aimee Lou Wood, the professor’s sad daughter who loves Astrov but he does not reciprocate and who may be the only optimistic character in the play.

The ensemble acting is of sterling quality. That can only be achieved when there is directorial discipline and acting ability. Rickson shows that he is a master of both.

This is a highly nuanced and successful production. It grabs the audience from the opening scene and keeps us riveted until the final, somewhat ambiguous end of the play. In short, a very good night at the theatre.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in an adaptation by Conor McPherson continues until May 2, 2020 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London SW1Y 4DN.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

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