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Uncle Vanya review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘full of ache and longing’

Paul Rhys in Uncle Vanya at Almeida Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton Paul Rhys in Uncle Vanya at Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Robert Icke is a Time Lord. That’s the only explanation. The man knows how to speed things up and how to slow things all the way down. Icke’s glorious Oresteia – originally performed at the Almeida Theatre before a West End transfer – was one of last year’s theatre highlights, and quite possibly the boldest show of 2015. It originally ran to over three and a half hours, but you never begrudged it a single second. With its ticking clocks, and its choking sense of tension, not a moment was wasted.

The same can be said of his reworking of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: it runs similarly long, it’s the longest version of the play I can remember seeing, but it justifies every minute of its running time. Here though things are summer-slow and languid: time drips, it pools, like sweet tea leaking from a samovar. The production is broken up by three ten-minute intervals, but these don’t disrupt the pace, rather they make it manageable, they fall in the right places. The first quarter has a hazy, lazy quality, with Jackie Shemesh’s lighting warming everything through. The cast lounges around Hildegard Bechtler’s gently revolving wooden cube of a set much as they might the garden of the Big Brother house, occasionally jumping down to the floor to address the audience directly.

Icke’s Uncle Vanya is a production of great empathy and generosity, with each character given room to bloom. Paul Rhys is a rumpled and tormented Vanya – or rather, John: all the names are anglicised – even though his performance and demeanour is at times almost uncannily reminiscent of Brian, the tortured artist from the sitcom Spaced. There’s a glorious drinking scene, featuring both karaoke Bowie and Tobias Menzies’s doctor – here called Michael – dancing around in his pants. There’s also a lovely running joke about the tuning of guitars and a scene-stealing chicken.

Jessica Brown Findlay – Electra in Icke’s Oresteia – is revelatory as Sonya, with that fig-ripe voice of hers, rich and raw as cherry brandy. With her hair greased to her head, she’s convincingly plain yet so full of longing, it practically drips from her. The moment when she and Vanessa Kirby’s highly stylish but not unsympathetic Elena finally make a connection and contemplate playing the piano together only to have this one fragile, fleeting moment casually denied them feels remarkably brutal, like a wound.

The production doesn’t feel as bold and provocative as the Oresteia – it certainly doesn’t leave you feeling winded in quite the same way – and there’s also a sense of having seen some of this before, that Icke’s repurposing some of his devices and ideas from elsewhere (the revolving set is a prime example of this), but the whole thing works so beautifully as a whole, it hardly matters. It has a seductive, thick-aired, wine-warm quality, it is so full of ache, and – in its own slow, sun-washed way – it makes the whole play feel awake.

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Every second is made to count in Robert Icke’s intelligent, sensitive adaptation of Chekhov