Saturday, 13 February 2016

Review Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
A New Adaptation by Robert Icke

Here's Johnny

Uncle Vanya gets a meandering updated filmic treatment in Robert Icke's new adaptation which he has both adapted and directed. While this is a British accented production, this struck TLT and her little gas guzzler as having an American setting.

Icke translates Uncle Vanya into Uncle Johnny, as apparently Vanya is a diminutive of Ivan, the Russian enquivalent of Russian equivalent of John. 

Paul Rhys's Johnny almost appears to have stepped out of a celibate Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. The same simmering frustrations of academic and sexual jealousy directed against the returning widower  Alexander (Hilton McRae) of Johnny's late sister, a professor of the Arts, now remarried to the much younger beautiful disenchanted Elena (Vanessa Kirby), reminiscent of a Hollywood starlet in sunshine yellow later turned to bohemian black.

This could almost be an artists' or academic or, dare one say it, actors' commune in its final days with Johnny and his niece Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay), the daughter of the first marriage managing the day-to-day running and financial affairs against the overwrought backdrop.  

Set on a stage revolving (creakily like cracking branches) by increments, the wooden pillars at each corner enclose the space designed by Hildegard Bechtler with multiple resonances of time and place.   

Michael (Tobias Menzies), a doctor, tends but despairs of his patients, his heart in conserving the forest and future vistas ending the play with a Chaplinesque touch, balancing a globe. Impoverished Telegin is transformed into Cartwright (Richard Lumsden), the Bob Dylan emulating neighbouring landowner.  

These are baby boomer characters all left cut adrift, as the elderly professor proposes to sell the estate, not in his gift to sell, along with the old Nanny (Annie Queensberry) with her knitting and offers of tea, bringing the farmyard into the house in the shape of a (well-trained!) red rooster.

It is an adaptation with a neat turn in humorous bathos as the awkward group bring their fragile egos to the farmhouse surrounded by animals and woods. Chekhov's play itself was adapted by the original playwright from an earlier version, "The Wood Demon" and Johnny's increasing dishevelment and the characters' Caliban-like animal positioning pinpoint the forest magic.

Almost all the roles carry equal weight until the final scenes with characters jumping down from the revolve to reveal their inner thoughts in monologues under spotlight. It is an adaptation and sometimes it feels that Chekhov's irony is lost and the hurt distanced in favour of a new story.

But the growing anguish of Rhys in the title role from measured administrator to maddened holy idiot as if wrongly accused of failing in life is finely judged.  And his mother Maria (Susan Woodridge), acolyte of the professor, with her androgynous short combed back white hair and glasses could equally be a party apparatchik of the 1970s as well as the protector of an academic or even acting theory.

It comes in at nearly three and a half hours so plan your journey home carefully. Still, it's divided into acts broken up by 10 minute intervals, although  it felt as if the farmyard herd was being orchestrated outside the play within the crowded confines of the Almeida as we all rushed out for drinks and a comfort break and then back!

Intriguing and reflective, this production held us just on the right side of languor as it weaved its spell. It doesn't replace other versions but it's a green light for an ensemble rumination on the strangeness of modern life.

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