Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is best summarised as an update – and an Anglicisation. Played in contemporary clothes, with sprinkled swearwords (so often touted as modern shorthand for “relevance”), Uncle Vanya is now ‘Uncle Johnny’, Professor Serebryakov is simply ‘Alexander’, Dr Astrov is ‘Michael’. So far, so emphatically un-Russian; which, given the nation’s recent whirlwind love affair with War and Peace, seems just a slight pity, and any lingering “peasant” references in the text do now feel clangingly out of context. Nevertheless, Alan Ayckbourn had luck with his own 1930s Lake District setting of this play, Dear Uncle, and Chekhov’s cast of misfit characters, each lost in a lonely world of bitter unfulfilment, certainly translate smoothly into awkward, pent-up English gentry. What translates less well is Icke’s text on stage: when the adapter is also the director, the vital role of editor can get subsumed amidst general enthusiasm.
We are consequently presented with an enormous evening (with no less than three intervals) which sprawls and rambles like one of the overgrown forests the ecologically conscientious Michael is fighting so hard to conserve. The first and final acts, particularly, are begging for a sharp-edged axe: the first act moved into being with such titanic slowness that I wondered how we would ever get to the end of that, let alone the play, before the last Tube had swished away. The final scenes, though benefiting from wonderful cumulative power, begin to feel like one of those friends who spends half an hour on your doorstep saying goodbye repeatedly after a three-hour lunch. It’s all great: you just wish it would stop.
But happily, in the middle, there is much to marvel at, and the play gains in majesty and tension all night: it doesn’t so much command our attention as cajole us, gradually, into submission. Particularly fine performances from Tobias Menzies as the outrageously attractive, brooding doctor Michael, and Jessica Brown Findlay as a superbly gauche and troubled Sonya, can lift Icke’s adaptation into legend. Brown Findlay’s deliciously accurate observation of agonsingly shy adolescent movements, and her vivid natural delivery, feel brilliantly fresh. Paul Rhys’ delicately drawn Uncle John, trembling with elegant frustration, eventually reveals a fabulous (and very frightening) final rage. Strong support comes from Vanessa Kirby as a febrile, fascinating Elena, with Hilton McRae giving an object lesson in exquisite, sculptural phrasing as the elderly Alexander, though smaller characters can be less successful.
Hildegard Bechtler’s simple set, a steadily rotating open-sided cube with a few dotted pieces of old furniture, offers Icke the worst directoral temptation of all: characters literally jump through the invisible 4th wall to pour out their hearts to us, a trope as tired as it is obvious. But again, the quality of the resulting soliloquies goes far beyond such coarseness; thanks to the sheer quality of his actors, Icke just gets away with it. Similarly, while ensemble scenes can drag and stutter, private exchanges between pairs of characters are forensically intense. Worth staying for.