Uncle Vanya feels like such a natural fit for Toby Jones that it’s a wonder he hasn’t played the role before now.
He is as affecting as you’d expect as a man who has worked on his brother-in-law Serebryakov’s estate for years and feels as if life has left him behind. Wonderfully rumpled, his shirt forever untucked, with a sauce stain on his trousers, he radiates yearning and middle-aged malaise, abruptly declaring he could have been another Dostoevsky only to sink back into his hole of self-loathing. It’s a performance of physical precision: every time he ruffles his hair or hitches an eyebrow, it adds something.
Conor McPherson’s adaptation serves him well. The text is pared down – McPherson has streamlined it while also adding some fruity phrasing and gently playing up the environmentalism. 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. McPherson earths the play. He captures its deep sadness – this is a story about people abandoning their dreams and, with them, any possibility of love – and its humour; that these are characters to be laughed both at and with.
Alongside Jones, the other performances are equally well-crafted. Rosalind Eleazar is a poised Yelena, a woman who has resigned herself to married life with a much older man only to briefly glimpse something she desires but knows she cannot have. Aimee Lou Wood (best known for Netflix’s Sex Education) brings an achingly sweet quality to Sonya.
The scene in which Sonya and Yelena take a cup of wine together – and finally understand one another – is wonderfully warm, making its sudden termination by the crotchety professor far sadder. Ciarán Hinds is surprisingly robust as Serebryakov, imposing in more ways than one, while Peter Wight is an engaging comic presence as ‘Waffles’ Telegin.
Rae Smith’s production design is divine. 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. Bruno Poet’s striking lighting captures the fact that the presence of the professor and his young wife have upset people’s body clocks, has put time out of joint; they dine at odd hours, sleep infrequently and drink all the time.
Ian Rickson’s production is polished to a high shine. The emotional arcs, the richness of the performances, the lucidity of the adaptation, the sumptuous design: everything about it gleams. There are no rough edges. It’s almost too controlled, too clean.
Its most charged moments are some of its smaller ones. When Richard Armitage’s slightly underpowered Astrov, having finally grasped the depth of Sonya’s feeling for him, pecks her on the forehead as one might a niece, it’s devastating. The last scenes are also deeply moving. While everyone returns to their routines, Sonya glows bright as a candle, the last light in a lost world.