Another year, another star-studded Uncle Vanya. Whereas 2019 gave us Rupert Everett as Vanya in a David Hare adaptation in Bath, 2020 offers up Toby Jones as Chekhov’s chequered hero in a new version by Conor McPherson in the West End. Ian Rickson’s production runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until May.
Jones – an Olivier award-winner, familiar from screen roles in everything from Doctor Who to Detectorists, and last seen on stage in a 2018 revival of Pinter’s The Birthday Party – is joined on stage by Richard Armitage, Rosalind Eleazar, Ciaran Hinds, Peter Wight, Aimee Lou Wood and others. Rae Smith, another Olivier-winner for her work on War Horse, designs.
Conor McPherson’s previous work includes Dublin Carol, The Weir, The Seafarer, The Night Alive, and the book for Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country. Director Ian Rickson, an ex-artistic director of the Royal Court, has collaborated with him before on The Weir and Dublin Carol, and with Jones on The Birthday Party, too – three much-lauded entries on a rich resume.
But do the reviewers rave about this crack creative team? Does the jaunty, jovial Jones provide a vivid Vanya? Do McPherson and Rickson reunite for a praise-worthy production of this classic Chekhov?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
Uncle Vanya has been tackled by countless playwrights over the years – Christopher Hampton, Pam Gems, David Hare, Robert Icke to name a few – and each puts their special spin on it. What does McPherson make of it, and what do the reviewers think of his rewrite?
“The text is pared down – McPherson has streamlined it while also adding some fruity phrasing and gently playing up the environmentalism,” explains Natasha Tripney (The Stage ★★★★). “He also repurposes some of Chekhov’s dialogue as direct address so that, on several occasions, the characters break off to explain their emotional predicaments to the audience.”
It’s an adaptation that most find moving. It “finds a sweet spot between companionable chuckles and icy despair” for Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★), “has a stripped, vivid simplicity” for Arifa Akbar (Guardian ★★★★★), and is “direct, unfussy and modern” for Lyn Gardner (Stagedoor).
It’s also a remarkably relevant revision, apparently. According to Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★) it “feels almost impossibly contemporary in the way it packs so much lust, wit, rage and regret into its brisk but unhurried two and a half hours”, and according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★) it is “a Vanya for our times”.
“This production of Uncle Vanya makes it seem as accessible as a TV drama, without ever betraying the great, melancholy, insightful soul that has made the play last for as long as it has,” lauds Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★★). “It is radical and revelatory without ever being gimmicky or insensitive.”
Almost everyone agrees, but not quite. David Benedict (Variety) thinks it loses the original’s “controlled understatement” and is rendered “bizarrely un-Chekhovian” as a result, and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★) complains that it doesn’t do anything really radical. “Business as usual – a sensitive, period Chekhov,” he calls it.
Director Ian Rickson has had a fairly fruitful career in recent years – the megahit Jerusalem in 2009, a much-lauded Betrayal starring Kristin Scott Thomas in 2011, a similarly praise-showered production of Old Times in 2013. Then The Birthday Party and Translations in 2018, followed by Rosmersholm in May last year. Does his direction endear him to the critics once again here?
On the whole, yes. For Benedict, his production is “only intermittently touching and funny”, but for everyone else, Rickson evokes an admirably atmospheric elegance. He directs with “wit and finesse” for Curtis and finds the play’s “tender, funny, sad and crushingly comic notes in turn” for Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★★), while for Gardner he provides “a beautifully put together production” that’s “exquisitely thought out”.
“Rickson’s productions are never knowingly unexquisite,” agrees Lukowski. “Sometimes, dare I say it, Rickson’s extreme exquisiteness can lead to slightly dull productions. That’s absolutely not the case here.”
A lot of credit for that exquisiteness has to go to designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Bruno Poet, both of whom are acclaimed by the critics. Their work is “capaciously elegant” for Tom Birchenough (ArtsDesk ★★★★★) and “a thing of beauty” for Akbar.
“Smith’s production design is divine,” agrees Tripney. “The characters are marooned in a vast sunroom with streaked windowpanes, an enormous mirror on one wall, and greenery erupting through the cracks, the forest encroaching.”
“Poet doesn’t so much light Rae Smith’s wonderfully suggestive, wood-toned, high-vaulted, indoor-outdoor set – part conservatory, part study – as ignite it,” adds Benedict. “The intensity of his steeply angled light so floods the stage and irradiates the characters caught between indolence and industry that it makes you want to move in.”
Toby Jones won an Olivier way back in 2001 for his role in The Play What I Wrote, and although his career has largely progressed on screen since then, he’s sporadically returned to the stage – most recently in Rickson’s revival of The Birthday Party two years ago. Uncle Vanya, though, seems like a role that was written for him.
“Vanya feels like such a natural fit for Toby Jones that it’s a wonder he hasn’t played the role before now,” comments Tripney. “Wonderfully rumpled, his shirt forever untucked, with a sauce stain on his trousers, he radiates yearning and middle-aged malaise.”
“It’s a performance of physical precision: every time he ruffles his hair or hitches an eyebrow, it adds something,” she adds, and others agree. He’s “frenetic, funny and deeply resentful” according to Alexandra Pollard (Independent ★★★), “brings a tortured truth to the role” according to Akbar, and “once again proves to be the grand master of portraying utterly winning losers” according to Maxwell.
“I’ve seen angier Vanyas (Roger Allam), more melancholy Vanyas (Simon Russell Beale),” writes Cavendish. “I’m not sure I’ve seen any better catch the tragicomic mixture of fury and futility.”
Elsewhere, amid a cast of big names – Richard Armitage, Peter Wight and Ciarán Hinds are all given approving nods here and there – it’s Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena and Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya that are singled out for particular praise.
Eleazar is “spoilt yet sympathetic, elegant yet desperate” in “a name-making performance” according to Maxwell, while Wood – recently recognisable from her role in Netflix’s Sex Education – is “achingly sweet” according to Tripney, and supplies “a truly heartbreaking performance” according to Curtis.
Five-star reviews from the Guardian and the Arts Desk, and four-star ratings almost everywhere else would indicate that, yes, Rickson’s revival of Uncle Vanya is good. Maybe great, in fact.
McPherson’s adaptation is remarkably resonant in 2020, but doesn’t sacrifice the stereotypical stillness and sadness of Chekhov’s original. Rickson’s production is exquisite, thanks in large part to Smith’s atmospheric design and Poet’s striking lighting. And, at the centre of a strong cast, Jones supplies a superb performance in a role that could have been written for him.