Last year at the Almeida, director Robert Icke packed the epic Oresteia trilogy of betrayal, murder and vengeance into three and half thrilling hours.
In the three hours and 15 minutes of Icke’s equally modern production of Uncle Vanya, there’s only a few minutes’ action. Hardly anything actually happens, but a whirlpool of trauma below the surface sucks you in.
Torpor gives way to first tension then desperate hysteria in a series of four sections (punctuated by three intervals) that make Chekov’s late, great tragedy feel not just universal but uncomfortably, inescapably relevant.
Icke’s adaptation doesn’t bulldoze the original. The text stays fairly faithful and the aesthetics are subtle. Yet 19th century Russia is wiped away; instead of Vanya, we have the Anglicised John (Paul Rhys) in a deliberately dislocated country house. A revolving set, spinning slowly enough to expose each mundane, domestic detail, emphasises the stagnation on stage.
Sapped of purpose, the family flits between frustration and farce. Robert Lumsden (playing ineffectual godfather Cartwright) strums on an acoustic guitar and plays the accordion. Each time the music builds a folksy, romantic backdrop it falters. Later, snippets of Artic Monkeys and Iggy Pop punctuate a particularly farcical frenzy of drunken dancing.
After a shaky opening scene between Nanny (Ann Queensberry) and the Doctor (Tobias Mezies) the performances are absorbing and nuanced. Paul Rhys' Vanya crumbles with such trembling pathos it's hard to watch.
But it’s the young women who really steal the show. Vanessa Kirby as beautiful but bored Elena begins all brash Chelsea trophy wife, hiding her disdain behind sunglasses. But at the slightest scrutiny she reveals frenetic insecurity fizzing below the surface. And as ‘plain’ stepdaughter Sonya, Jessica Brown Findlay captures every cadence and flinch of awkward adolescence then brings captivating humanity to that final, heart-breaking speech promising her distraught uncle 'we shall rest'.
|What||Uncle Vanya, Almeida Theatre review|
|Where||Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Highbury & Islington (underground)|
05 Feb 16 – 26 Mar 16, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £35|
|Website||Click here to book via the Almeida Theatre|