Back at the start of 2020, I tried to buy tickets to see a production of Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter theatre in London. The dream combination of Chekhov and a stellar cast was just too good to be true.
Not surprisingly, lots of other people thought the same. So, no tickets.
Then COVID struck, the theatres closed and the cast were sent home.
Fortunately, someone had the bright idea of re-assembling the company (with one change) and filming the play. This must have felt like a strange dress rehearsal for the actors, but for Chekhov lovers, like me, ironically stuck out in the sticks, it has been a fabulous Christmas treat, courtesy of BBC4.
To make sure I got the most out of it, I read the play again, before I watched it.
Like all Chekhov plays, nothing seems to happen and people bumble about in a seemingly unfocused way, then suddenly there is a crisis event which sends things off in a different direction.
In spite of the play’s title, the central character, for me, is actually ‘the Professor’, Aleksandr Serebryakov and the impact of his unfeeling, and blinkered selfishness, which begins more than twenty years previously:
- In marrying his first wife (Vera Petrovna), the family are forced to borrow to buy the estate which forms part of her dowry.
- Vera’s brother, Vanya, signs away his inheritance to benefit this arrangement for his sister. After her death, he continues to work on the estate (taking very little pay) until the mortgage is paid off.
- Vanya’s mother and the rest of the family support the Professor’s work by editing his notes, undertaking translations etc.
- He takes no part in managing or looking after the affairs of the estate either before or after he returns to live on it, leaving all this to his daughter, Sonya (who has inherited the estate on her mother’s death) and his brother-in-law (Vanya, Sonya’s uncle);
- He does not care how the family lives as long as they provide him with a regular income, which allows him to continue his sheltered, metropolitan life as an academic.
- His second wife is an educated young woman who marries him for love, but he shows no sign of caring about her or how she spends her time.
- He is happy to inconvenience others such as Dr. Astrov, by sending for him when he feels ill, then not seeing him, in spite of the distance the doctor has to travel to get to the Serebryakov estate.
The other two key characters are the unusual (vegetarian, tree planting, prescient) doctor, Astrov and Vanya himself, who early in the play indicates that the scales have fallen from his eyes regarding the Professor and his work (worthless). A third male character (Telegin) is a male counterpoint to Marina (the family’s old nanny).
The role of the four women characters appears to be that of illustrating particular traits. Responses to these keep the play moving:
- Goodness and responsibility (Sonya);
- Boredom (and beauty) (Yelena);
- Sense and order (Marina);
- Blind, hero worship (Marina Voynitska)
Things come to a head, when the Professor calls a family meeting to tell them that the estate is not providing him with enough funds to meet his future requirements. He expresses his desire to sell it and invest the proceeds so that he can return to dwell in the city. The rest of the family don’t play a part in his future plans and he doesn’t seem to care that this will make them homeless.
Vanya, driven mad by this announcement, disappears briefly and returns with a revolver. He then attempts to shoot Serebryakov, but misses.
The final act deals with the fallout from this and the resolution of a number of plot strands such as the relationship between Sonya, Astrov and Yelena.
The play ends with the departure of Serebryakov and Yelena from the estate and a return to ‘normality’ for the remaining characters.
The Ian Rickson directed production does not follow the play’s initial stage setting directions, but is beautifully atmospheric, replacing the “outside tea table set” with a sort of vast decayed conservatory, which is provides a flexible backdrop which requires no real changes except lighting. The text has been updated, but nothing is lost by this (I own two different translations and there must be more).
Casting is pitch perfect with Richard Armitage as the (formerly?) handsome Astrov and Toby Jones taking the role of Vanya. Roger Allam does sterling work as Serebryakov. Actually, the whole cast are superb and it would be interesting to see what things would look like if they swapped roles.
Block out a couple of hours over the Festive period and enjoy a masterpiece.