Sometimes a production comes together so completely and seamlessly you forget you are watching actors on a stage, or – in this case – on a screen.
I missed out on the stage production of Uncle Vanya by one day. The axe fell on the show, as on other West End shows, on 16 March. They re-scheduled it to open again in May (how optimistic was that), and I booked again, and it was cancelled again.
But now here it is again, this time on screen, filmed during lockdown in an empty Harold Pinter theatre, and how lucky I feel to have been able to see it at long last. To say it is perfect is not an exaggeration. From the setting to the lighting to the adaptation (Conor McPherson), to the cast, every single one of them, we are right there in the room with the hapless Vanya (Toby Jones), his sweet niece Sonya (Aimee Lee Wood), the world-weary Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage), loyal Nana (the still beautiful Anna Calder-Marshall) and impoverished neighbour Telegin (Peter Wight) as they roll around their dilapidated farm somewhere in rural Russia.
I know the play well. A century ago in my acting days I played Sonya, the pure-hearted, stalwart niece of the title character, the most – the one – uncomplicated character in the whole piece. Plain and idealistic, she is hopelessly and heart-breakingly in love with Dr Astrov, and he only has eyes for the beautiful Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), who is married to Sonya’s father, the Professor (Roger Allum). At the age of nineteen or so I empathised with her completely.
The adaptation is absolutely spot on. Edging close to anachronism but never overstepping the line. Bringing the play utterly up to date while retaining its late 19th century sensibilities. Astrov’s speech about the wrecking of the environment could have been written yesterday, by Richard Attenborough or Greta Thunberg.
Bravo to every single one of them, and especially to director Ian Rickson. An absolute marvel. Why this production didn’t sweep the boards of the Olivier Awards is beyond me.
The film premiered yesterday and is showing again in certain cinemas on Sunday. https://www.unclevanyacinema.com/ It’s also due to appear on the BBC as some point.
Here’s a lovely review by Sarah Crompton from whatsonstage. https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/uncle-vanya-harold-pinter-armitage_50759.html.
There are advantages to lockdown, and Uncle Vanya is one of them. We get to see the actors in close-up, we see the sweat, and the tears (no glycerine here I don’t think). As with Andrew Scott in Three Kings and Michael Sheen, David Threlfall and Indira Varma in Faith Healer – both productions streamed live from an empty Old Vic – this is acting in the raw. Acting so sublime it is not acting at all. A dazzling light in what is turning out to be a long, dark, Covid tunnel.
London, October 2020