Review - Uncle Vanya starring Richard Armitage at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Michael Billington recently wrote a feature for The Guardian in which he commented that he's seen nearly two dozen productions of Uncle Vanya in over 60 years as a theatregoer (48 of them as a critic); and even if I can't (yet) claim quite those numbers on any of those scores, like Billington I consider it to be my personal favourite of all of Chekhov's plays - indeed, I'd go even further and say it's my favourite play, period, from a writer who I consider my favourite of all the classic playwrights. I try to never miss an opportunity to see it; and in the last few years, these have included, for me, spellbinding productions at the Almeida (in 2016, which I gave a five-star review to on this site) and Manchester's Home (in 2017), with a rather less satisfying version at Hampstead Theatre in 2018.
So the new West End production has a lot to live up to; and if it is not quite as radical as Robert Icke's Almeida re-working, which I dubbed "a crushingly brilliant new take on an all-too-familiar play", this more conventionally staged version has a masterly sense of pace and place, with director Ian Rickson orchestrating a mostly stellar cast in a beautifully nuanced account of the play that fully embraces its tender, funny, sad and crushingly comic notes in turn.
Rickson, who also has a long relationship with Connor McPherson who provided the new version of the play used here that saw him staging the premieres of McPherson's plays The Weir and Dublin Carol, also previously directed Chekhov's The Seagull at the Royal Court in a production that subsequently transferred to Broadway. One of our very best directors of new plays, he has also increasingly demonstrated his facility for commercial outings of classic revivals that shine fascinating new light on them
Here this is achieved by a deliberately muted, unshowy emphasis on performance, with three leading performances that unassertively each glow with crushed, repressed feelings that they dare to expose. Toby Jones' unrequited passion for Rosalind Eleazar's beautiful Yelena, who is in turn desperately in love with Richard Armitage's Astrov, provides the painful anchors to the drama; there's also unrequited passion in Aimee Lou Wood's Sonya, also in love with Astrov, but this is less convincingly caught.
But elsewhere there's also rich support from Ciaran Hinds' Professor Serebrakhov, Anna Calder-Marshall's Nana, Dearbhla Molloy as Vanya's mother and Peter Wight as Waffles to make this a piercing production in which you really get to know each character.
This is both a play and a production that speaks to the yearning chasms of existential despair in life, love, aspiration, inheritance and unfulfilled ambitions; it also, thrillingly and presciently, addresses concerns about the impact of deforestation, and yet also of hopes for a better prospect of happiness for the generations that will come after the characters in it. In other words, it is at once an unstintingly bleak portrait of the state of an unhappy family and the stultifying dull lives they're enduring in rural Russia, yet also so imbued with a recognisable humanity that it is also a heartfelt portrait in that very sense of endurance and the necessity to do so, against the odds.
This richly detailed production is housed within a stunning set by Rae Smith, gorgeously lit by Bruno Poet and hauntingly scored by composer Stephen Warbeck.
At a time when the current fashion is to view Chekhov through a different cultural lens, as the National are doing with Three Sisters relocated to Nigeria, it is both refreshing and even radical to go back to Chekhovian basics and produce a more faithful version like this in the West End that demonstrates what a masterpiece the play is without the need for reinvention.
Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd May.
Photo credit: Johan Persson