After the success of Robert Icke’s Oresteia and 1984, it’s no wonder that the anticipation around the Almeida’s latest classic adaptation, of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, has been high. It is a slick, seemingly simple production that Icke has given time to breathe for moments like lighting candles, pouring wine, cutting cheese and catching raindrops. But it is the human conflicts between these spaces of time that make it magical.
The title character – nominated by the diminutive John or Johnny throughout this adaptation (provoking academic debate in the comments section here) – is a rusty, middle-aged man whose country life has been one of toil and monotony, alongside his niece Sonia. Played by Paul Rhys, he and the play’s other country characters converse as lights come up on a raised box set, which turns on a slow revolve. It’s an ingenious way to allow the naturalism to look natural, while allowing the audience to see the cast at all angles. The muted tones, pine boards and minimalist furniture would filter well in an East London Instagram.
The tea’s been ready for two hours, which Nanny (Ann Queensberry) is very upset about, when the city folk finally arrive back from their walk. The old professor Alexander (Hilton McRae) and his young second wife Elena (Vanessa Kirby) arrive in a bright but disruptive affront to country rhythms, alongside the professor’s daughter Sonia and a local, volatile but well-meaning landowner, Cartwright. The accruing conflicts that are pursued – of love and money and pent-up tradition – are mesmerising.
Life is boring, says the doctor Michael (Tobias Menzies), who’s arrived to treat the professor’s gout. Furthermore, life is sordid, full of conflict and blunt. Icke’s version is, as this instance indicates, very English. I almost expect the “something stronger” that Nanny offers the Doctor to be whisky, instead of the vodka that she procures. The Russian-ness has been absorbed into an English sense of self-conscious boredom and comic dissatisfaction with living, which arrests Elena in particular, to the extent that she declares it a quality that unites her and John.
Despite this confession of dullness, she knows that her presence is arresting, vivacious and brilliant amongst the understated rural affairs she finds herself in. This couldn’t be more true than when she makes her first entrance, from the walk in the woods, in an elegant, sunshine-yellow jumpsuit with culotte-style bottoms and a summery cross-back top – paired with wellies, of course. Kirby achieves greatness in this role, especially in her balancing of innocence and morality with passion and knowledge.
At its most basic, this Uncle Vanya is about the frictions and incompatibilities between the high-minded inactivity and fashionable boldness of the city, and the rural flow of work and effort in sync with nature. But Icke’s play finds hilarity and reason to laugh in its darkest moments. That can be the only reason that the four acts, each separated by an artistically wondrous but practically nightmarish ten-minute interval, are palatable. At one point, Nanny brings a live hen on stage. Cartwright spins out a tuneful folk-pop air on his acoustic guitar and breaks off to tune up at comical moments in the conversation. Menzies performs an outlandish drunk dance wearing only his pants. And there’s a particularly good joke about the temperature of tea.
Susan Wooldridge seems strange and out of place in her matriarchal role as Maria, acting oddly with her son John, and barely interacting at all with the happenings around her. Lumsden’s shoutiness, as he calls out his sufferings, are sometimes funny but at times too much. These, though, are the only hiccups in a practically perfect and complexly entertaining production.
Uncle Vanya is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 26 March. For more information, see the Almeida Theatre website. Photo: Manual Harlan