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Irish playwright Conor McPherson's work is often dubbed ‘Chekhovian' so you'd think he's a natural for adapting Chekhov's melancholy masterpiece about pitiful, unrequited love and lost hopes, but sadly this much hyped production of Uncle Vanya misses more often than it hits the target.
A few years ago at the Almeida Robert Icke delivered a Vanya which answered (for this writer at least) how you give this play a contemporary spin without destroying its core the psychological detail which, of course, is informed by its historical setting - it's an icon of naturalistic theatre - and how these characters were expected to behave in that society. That repression, that sense of duty, fuelling the sadness and the futility. You update it badly, it ends up like a Californian daytime soap, all empty emoting, everything made explicit.
McPherson's adaptation lays on the vernacular approach with a trowel, as if we couldn't ‘get' people from just 120 years ago. Ian Rickson's direction and Rae Smith's hip design, like some trendily distressed antique laden loft in Shoreditch, adds to this modern take.
Toby Jones, a superlative actor, turns Vanya into a bilious version of Ian Hislop in Have I Got News for You. All smart-ass sarcasm, which of course would come from a place of confidence, not from someone clinically depressed. It makes you wonder why such a vital and seemingly self-aware character would endure his lot - being stuck slaving in a remote country estate so that remittances can be sent to support the Moscow lifestyle of his pompous brother in law, the great Professor. The point about Vanya is that he'll never go ...and he knows it.
Ciaran Hinds, quite miscast, can't help giving the Professor a sinister edge which doesn't sit with someone who runs away at the first sign of being challenged. Richard Armitage has Byronic presence as Astrov but no sense of this being a man with a hinterland, which is what makes him so attractive to the women. He's an oddity in 1899, a man whose passion for environmentalism and vegetarianism now seem astonishingly prescient. Another example of why you don't really need to ‘update' Chekhov.
There are two great things in it. McPherson brings all the women characters to the foreground and in doing so he gives Dearbhla Molloy a chance to invest Mariya (Vanya's mother) with some real fire. Here she berates Vanya for failing to take advantage of his authority as a man, which she never could and it totally illuminates this thwarted woman, usually side lined as a steely intellectual fussing over the great professor's pamphlets and completely absent of any motherly warmth.
Also, Peter Wight takes another minor character, Waffles, the hanger-on, who is usually presented as pitiable and so the ‘comic relief' and transforms him. In a masterclass of acting Wight has him lose his temper and we glimpse the pride underneath all that subjugation. We see what the man had been.
Investing this piece with a forced contemporary spin is a matter of swings and roundabouts and here you lose much more than you gain.