Don’t Cry Uncle

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (directed by Ian Rickson, Harold Pinter Theatre)

For a change from Norwegian theatre – though in practice Ibsen – I moved to Russian, and ponder whether I’ve seen this before. I’d seen The Seagull, and I think something at the Lace Market Theatre, but that may have involved sisters and orchards. I had no sense who Uncle Vanya was and whether he has nieces or nephews.

Uncle Vanya – the sometimes ubiquitous Toby Jones, equally good as villain or victim – is a failed intellectual turned farm manager, who looks after his niece Sonya’s (Aimee Lou Wood) estate, sending the majority of the money to her father, the aging Professor Serebryakov (Ciaran Hinds), who has now retired to the farm with his younger second wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar). Yelena is attractive – Vanya is tempted – but the local, hardworking doctor Astrov (Rosalind Eleazar) is even more tempted and is blind to Sonya’s love for him. These tangled affairs are only going to get worse – Serebryakov has ideas about how he can prosper and this will run even more roughshod over his support staff.

Jones is fantastically dishevelled, crumpled, first seen asleep in the middle of the day, sceptical and cynical and burnt out, convinced he could have been an intellectual star if only he could have tucked his shirt in. He is deft at seeing the shortcomings in others, but perhaps has been blind to his own ridiculous loyalty. He get increasingly annoyed as the demands grow on him and you can see the despair build – at some point he will snap and you get to see if this is a comedy or a tragedy.

Astrov, meanwhile, the idealist doctor, is run into the ground by the outbreak of disease and the endless middle of the night call outs – and Serebryakov’s hypochondria. He also has an environmental streak, being aware of the industrialisation of the area, even as the wilds of nature seem to be creeping into the house. He’s also grasping for the term Anthropocene – seeing how humanity has changed nature just as it is clearly alienating itself.

The play has some alarming but pleasing lurches – Conor McPherson can find the comedy, and Jones is perfect for it, and Peter Wight as “Waffles” Telegin is the butt of many jokes, as well as endlessly self-deprecating. But the laughter is in the face of something more akin to Beckett – the endless drudge, the wasted lives and the blind devotion to enduring. Sonya’s resilience, in the face of an indifferent love interest, endless toil and her much-loved, much absent and clearly unloving father, is startling. She even seems capable of putting stepmother Yelena ahead of herself. I’m not sure that the actor is quiet strong enough to pull it off – her northern accent cracks among a melange of regional voices – but she is perhaps the one weak link in an otherwise strong ensemble. And Jones, predictably, steals every line.

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