Uncle Vanya

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Gert has seen many a production of Uncle Vanya but never anything to equal this Ian Rickson production with a script reworked by Conor Macpherson. It has been on recently in London at the Harold Pinter theatre, but this version shown on the ABC was filmed during lockdown, and it lends itself beautifully to the more intimate medium. You may be lucky enough to find it on your local broadcaster or streaming service if you can’t access the ABC site.

Vanya himself is often played as something of a romantic, poetic soul. Toby Jones (you may know him from The Detectorists) is a wonderfully unlikely Vanya, short and tubby, comic and tragic at the same time, ridiculous as he proclaims, “I could have been another Schopenhauer, another Dostoevsky.” Of course, we know he couldn’t. Nobody in the play could have been other than he is, that’s the reality and the tragedy of it, from the grandiose Doctor Astrov torn between the bleak reality of medical practice in this godforsaken part of the world and his dreams of ranging free in the natural world, to the failed academic Professor Serebryakov, pensioned-off and unread. Serebryakov’s young wife Yelena is often played as simply an untouchably seductive vision of feminine beauty for Astrov and Vanya, but here she’s as tortured a soul as anyone else, buried in her marriage to a selfish old man, with no hope of release. There’s a terrific scene between toothy, gawky Sonya trying to put the idea into the oblivious Astrov’s mind that she might be in love with him, and I particularly loved Peter Wight’s portrayal of the family friend “Waffles”. This is a minor role, but Wight makes of Telegin (Waffles) as full a character as the lead roles. Usually his annoyance at Yelena calling him by the wrong name is a muted, pathetic attempt to assert himself; here it’s a cry from a suffering soul, from a person with a very low opinion of himself but still clinging to the shreds of his identity.

Even the best performances I’ve seen of this, with big names like the Redgraves or Simon Russell Beale, seem, by comparison with this version, a bit lofty. Thinking about that, I found this article in The Guardian by Michael Billington, comparing different productions he’s seen: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jan/20/look-back-in-vanya-how-chekhovs-classic-changes-with-the-climate-toby-jones

The Russian actors perform Chekhov with a reckless emotionalism that borders on the neurasthenic. But, while I admired that, it would be wrong to say this is the only way to play Chekhov: it is right for these actors at this moment in time. Reflecting on the nearly two dozen productions of Vanya I have seen, it struck me that the play not only yields up new meanings at each viewing but that its performance reflects different cultures.

It’s a performance of meticulous emotional intelligence, with a set that’s at the same time vast and claustrophobic, mirroring the suffocated lives of the decaying landowner class. It brought alive as never before the plights of these people in a place and time so different from my own.

3 thoughts on “Uncle Vanya

  1. A beautiful write-up of a superb production! I really loved this too, one of the very best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in recent years. It was available on the BBC’s iPlayer for most of last year, but alas no longer – otherwise I’d be tempted to watch it again. (Maybe it will reappear at Christmas, when the big productions often get a repeat.) And I’m so glad you’ve highlighted Peter Wight’s performance in the role of Waffles, a wonderful contribution to a top-notch ensemble cast.

    1. You’d think it would be available on one of the streaming services like Netflix. So glad you agree with me about Peter Wight’s performance – what a depth of talent there is in British theatre.

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