Theatre: Anton Chekhov’s Play Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya [1898/2020]

I watched Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s celebrated play Uncle Vanya [1898], filmed at Harold Pinter Theatre in London in 2020. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring such names as Toby Jones (The Painted Veil (2006)), Roger Allam (V for Vendetta (2005)) and Richard Armitage (Hobbit (2012)), the story concerns an aging Professor Serebryakov, his young wife Yelena, his brother-in-law Uncle Vanya (by Serebryakov’s first wife), Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya, his mother-in-law Mariya (also by Serebryakov’s first wife) and a local doctor Astrov, who all try to come to terms with their different stations and situations in life. Uncle Vanya is living comfortably on Serebryakov’s estate, which belongs legally to Sonya, and “does nothing”, but the situation takes a turn for the worse when Professor suddenly announces that he would like to sell the house and the land. The situation is even more complicating because almost all men in the story are infatuated with Serebryakov’s beautiful wife Yelena and tensions soon reach a boiling point. This is a play which hinges on great performances and the cast delivers. This is a stylish and considerate adaptation of the play which has a very human drama at its centre. 

In my short review of Anton Chekhov’s novella The Duel [1891], I wrote that “the largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as [reside] in the process of brutal self-confrontation”. This sentence is also applicable to Uncle Vanya and its themes. Arguably, every person in Uncle Vanya is “cast adrift”, living in the past and is full of regrets – none of them have actually (yet) achieved their desired positions in life: we have an overworked doctor Astrov who feels that his best days are already behind him and who has “nothing to look forward to”; then, Uncle Vanya, who does not know to what use he should put himself and lazes days on end; Yelena, a person trapped in a loveless marriage from which she cannot escape; Professor Serebryakov, who feels a burden to others and understands only too well that other people simply “endure” him; and Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter, who knows only too well her plainness and suffers from unrequited love. The issue here is that none of these people see their situation objectively or from the point of view of other people. They are too engrossed in themselves, their troubles and in their own self-pity, refusing to really listen to each other (maybe everyone except Sonya). They are aimless and seemingly hopeless, and every character in this play gives at some point their own moving “existential crisis” speech. Hidden desires, secrets, jealousies and dissatisfactions break through though, until, finally, the most impractical person in the room declares: “We must face to our practicalities”.

The play itself is set in the 1890s Russia at a country estate, and the set design, with leafy greenery coming through the windows, evokes a simple rural life, while having a haunting and suffocating feel too because of the darkish lighting and decorations. Astrov emerges on this scene at his wit’s end. He is losing faith in his life and work because he sees so much death and suffering on a daily basis as a doctor. In his free time, he is also trying to save local woods from deforestation and his efforts are already proving futile in an increasingly “modern” and “selfish” society around him. Uncle Vanya is no better, living a seemingly pointless existence, and both men crave the attention of Yelena in whom they see their momentary salvation. Meanwhile, daughter Sonya also tries to capture the attention of Astrov, but in vain, and Professor himself keeps everyone busy around the clock with his random schedule of sleep, walks and tea.

The notable feature of Anton Chekhov’s plays is that they can be very relatable and almost always try to show the truth of existence. Uncle Vanya is deceptively simple, a quiet drama of family altercations. However, it all comes down to the way Chekhov interweaves deep and serious issues with simplicity and irony, and every viewer is bound to see something different, a different theme or idea, in this play. Also, even though the play is quite melancholic, Chekhov’s humour still comes through McPherson’s adaptation and there are some amusing scenes. After a series of rebellions of the soul, common sense and faith in the future finally triumph over momentary passions and despair.

Toby Jones is one of the most outstanding British actors and he is in the top-notch form here in the tricky role of Uncle Vanya (even if he suits more to the role of Professor Serebryakov). Richard Armitage and Roger Allam are equally good in the roles of Astrov and Serebryakov respectively, and it was a pity that I did not have a chance to see Ciaran Hinds (Silence (2016)) in the role of Serebryakov because the alternative production cast did include him. Rosalind Eleazar in the role of Professor’s young wife is somewhat uninspiring in the play’s first half. Eleazar’s character Yelena should be the centrepiece of the play, and, instead, Eleazar is almost a spare wheel in this play, perhaps until her powerful monologue. Instead, who captures the imagination here is Professor’s kind-hearted daughter Sonya, played by Aimee Lou Wood, and especially her closing speech.

Uncle Vanya [2020] is more or less faithful adaptation of the original play, but not without its modern touches. Anton Chekhov showed a segment of the Russian country society at odds with itself and beneath the illusion of a quiet and happy life, and Conor McPherson tried to adapt the story to our modern sensibilities. The result is a sumptuous-looking production of a tale of self-pity and its consequences, of finding hope in the hopelessness and learning to move on.

3 thoughts on “Theatre: Anton Chekhov’s Play Uncle Vanya

  1. Thank you for the synopsis to this, and a bit of background. We went to see Peter O’Toole as the eponymous Uncle Vanya at the Bristol Old Vic in the 1970s but unfortunately my partner was taken ill and we had to leave in the first Act, not easy when we were up in the ‘gods’. I’ve often wondered how the story progressed but haven’t thought about the play for decades until your reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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