A radical modern makeover is given to Chekhov's classic portrait of frustration and despair in Robert Icke's flawed but absorbing new production of Uncle Vanya (Almeida Theatre) with the date and location unspecified – certainly not 19th-century Russia – and the names anglicised, so that Uncle Vanya is now Uncle Johnny.
In this version Uncle Vanya is a 47 year-old depressed estate manager who together with his niece Sonya toil on a large country estate for her father, the selfish failed academic Alexander and his much younger glamorous wife Elena. The days hang heavy with boredom and unrequited love, complicated by the presence of cynical doctor and eco warrior Michael. There is a hazy, lazy rhythm to the piece, until tensions explode at the end.
Icke seems on a personal mission to update the classics, last year with the excellent Orestia, and now, less successfully, with this work. He is, I believe, mistaken if he thinks his modern approach can get to the heart of the play as Chekhov's characters and words speak for themselves and we lose a sense of the wider picture – the world in which these people existed which was about to change forever with the advent of the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, Icke manages to retain the spirit and the structure of the original and the piece is rich in psychological detail.
Indeed Icke's dialogue has an authentic, fragmentary quality with the exception of one jarring line about Sharia law, and is keenly attuned to Chekhov's vision retaining both its melancholy and dark comedy.
Designer Hildegard Bechtler has cleverly devised a slowly revolving box set that us a shifting perspective on the characters and situations and suggests a world spinning out of kilter.
Tall, bearded Paul Rhys, making his Almeida debut is a rumpled and tormented Vanya, or rather Johnny, steeped in self-loathing and shame, and is particularly moving in the scene when he is reduced to tears after being told that the estate is to be sold and that his life's work maintaining it has been both wasted and taken for granted. Jessica Brown Findlay, best known from the hit TV series Downton Abbey, with her fig-ripe voice and hair greased to her head, makes a convincing plain and tomboyish Sonya, full of longing. Vanessa Kirby is a stylish but unsympathetic Elena, Hilton McRea convinces as her gout-ridden, bruisingly dyspeptic professor husband Alexander and Tobias Menzies is fine as Michael Astor, the doctor, exhausted by his non-stop travelling, drinking and efforts to preserve the environment. Good support is provided by Richard Lamsden as an impoverished landowner and hanger-on, Susan Woolridge as a fiercely regal countess and the professor's first wife, and Ann Queensbury as a little old nurse, occupied for much of the time with her knitting.
The complex web of dysfunctional relationships that provides the driving force of the drama is certainly realised here, as is Icke's intention to show that life is hopeless, as well as brutish and short.
Runs at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 26 March 2016
Box office: 020 7359 4404
Last modified: April 7, 2021