How do you follow the earth-shattering success of a show like Oresteia? With difficulty it seems. Having deconstructed and reconstructed the Greeks, Robert Icke turns his hand to Chekhov with Uncle Vanya. But the world is hardly suffering from a lack of Vanyas and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Icke is treading a relatively similar creative path in the way that it treats the classic text. Yes, I’m essentially complaining about too much of a good thing, as it is still a very strong production but Oresteia was so extraordinary, that this inevitably pales by comparison
As is his wont, Icke’s Uncle Vanya is presented in a new version by Icke, a new translation aimed at replicating the disrupted rhythms of Chekhov’s Russian speech patterns, a largely successful enterprise. As are the soliloquies that each of the leading players are granted, casting new and interesting light on characters that are familiar (especially Sonya’s Act 4 speech). Jessica Brown Findlay scorches as the unfulfilled Sonya, Vanessa Kirby is exceptional as a passionate Elena, Tobias Menzies’ Michael (Astrov) achingly appealing as the idealist losing the courage of his convictions.
But less effective is the decision to uproot the play from its original setting, to an unspecified (modern) time and place. Names are anglicised – Vanya himself becomes John – which is all well and good but as with any modernised Chekhov, the crucial notion of paralysis doesn’t quite stick (just go to Moscow why don’t you!). Paul Rhys makes something of a case for the emotional struggles of the man, corroded almost comically by his frustrations but still ultimately empathetic. And as we get to the end, you realise the magic in Icke’s work, rounding out each character’s flaws into something understandable, relatable, identifiable.
Hildegard Bechtler’s variously rotating set looks the part but presents its own logistical difficulties as the languorous pace of the revolve results in big blocking issues. Similarly though, it allows for some gorgeous moments where the interplay of Jackie Shemesh’s lighting and some glassware is just stunning. The length of the production at 3 hours 15 minutes may seem hefty but it barely seems noticeable under Icke’s firm control, each act followed by a 10 minute pause rather than fully-fledged intervals, making the whole thing an unhurried pleasure. Just, you know, not quite as good as before.