Good for the soul: Uncle Vanya at the Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre
Royal Circle B19, £30
5 February 2020
I tremendously enjoyed this Uncle Vanya. I pretty much always enjoy Uncle Vanya – its characters and allusions provide endlessly rich fascination – but this production is particularly good. This is thanks to everyone involved: Conor McPherson’s sensible adaptation, Ian Rickson’s unobtrusive direction, Rae Smith’s beautiful and functional designs and the uniformly excellent cast. In addition to the enjoyment the play itself brings it’s good for the soul to see a group of people take a great play and make a great production; I emerged from the theatre thinking they could not be praised highly enough.
McPherson and Rickson are skilfully quiet in their adaptation: it’s classic, straightforward, traditional, but its clarity and surface simplicity favour the play and our ability as audience members to read it as both interesting historical document and timeless study of autonomy, dignity and self-worth and the impact of their removal. Any Uncle Vanya production should do this to at least some extent but McPherson and Rickson judge the balance exquisitely, with an unfussed directness that returns always the gaze to the text and its meaning today.
This vision is actualised through the cast, where it would be misleading to single any one person out. Toby Jones as Vanya, Richard Armitage as Astrov and Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena each brilliantly realise knowable characters that move with unknowing inevitability through Checkhov’s quiet tragedy. I couldn’t help but be annoyed with Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya but then that’s the sign of a good Sonya – I can never not find this worthy, self-sacrificing, pragmatic and resigned do-gooder annoying. The smaller roles were perfectly cast, too – Ciarán Hinds as the Professor has exactly the blend of gruffness and weakness you would imagine in your ideal picture of Hinds as the Professor to have; Peter Wright as the tearful Telegin and Anna Calder-Marshall as Nana are similarly poised at the point of expected brilliance without being predictable.
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