Almeida Theatre, London (****)
If you can get hold of the words, there’s something very special going on in Robert Icke’s new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
The iconoclastic Icke doesn’t tear up classic rule books for no reason. There’s always a piercing sense of dramatic intelligence at work. He did it with Orwell’s 1984, then last year with Aeschylus’ harrowing Oresteia. Now he’s done it again with Anton Chekhov.
Of all Chekhov’s small but influential theatre output, Uncle Vanya is the one that perhaps exhibits most pain. All its major players are living a knife edge existence. The exceptions are the interlopers, Vanya’s brother and his sister-in-law, the Professor (Alexander here) and his young wife, Elena, who have such a profound effect on Vanya’s household.
Vanya is about loss, wasted lives, the search for happiness and so presciently, environmental disaster, the juxtaposition of Man and Nature and the latter’s destruction at the hands of the former. It is also, pre Beckett, is about the human capacity to endure.
Icke sets his Vanya in motion on a stage that imperceptibly keeps on turning. Now you see them, now you don’t. Now you hear them – and now you don’t – one of the annoying elements for those of us unable to catch the exquisite naturalism Icke draws from his remarkable cast. Broadcast Live (which I’m sure it will be at some point), all will come even more clear.
As it is, even with a certain loss of text, Icke’s gives us a new, fresh perspective with individuals stepping out from the production’s corrosive atmosphere of deep inner pain to comment on their own behaviours.
So with Paul Rhys’s agonising Vanya, a sharp, bright mind turned in on itself by a lifetime of mislaid service, disappointment and frustration, his address to us tries to analyse his life as a result of his own shortcomings .
Jessica Findlay Brown’s Sonya (Findlay Brown unrecognisable from her `Downtown’ persona in baggy pants and sweater) is a younger version equally desperate in an unreciprocated love for Tobias Menzies’ sturdy, attractive doctor (here renamed Michael) but saved by a shining religious belief.
With Vanessa Kirby’s superbly all-at-sea Elena, this is a production above all, to experience, for good or ill. Tremendous.
Uncle Vanya runs at the Almeida Theatre to Mar 26, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Feb 2016