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Uncle Vanya (Almeida Theatre)

Robert Icke directs a new production of Chekhov's classic play

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't understand why director/adaptor Robert Icke wants to pretend that Chekhov's characters are not Russian – Vanya is "John" or, even worse, Sonya's "Uncle Johnny"; or that they live in the present – but where, exactly?; or that any emphatically idiomatic text he's cobbled together (from whose literal translation? we are not told) is preferable to Michael Frayn's.

But grumbles aside, and after suffering the torture of three ten-minute intervals where you're being harassed to return before you've even left the auditorium, the structure of this great play is intact, the pain and the comic absurdity overwhelming and the performance of Paul Rhys as the 47 year-old depressed estate manager John as good as any Vanya I've seen.

Tall, bearded, drenched in tears, Rhys – who convincingly declares that given half a better chance he could have been a Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky – has a moment of utter fury where he turns on the old professor (Hilton McRae) and decimates a bunch of roses on the back of the sofa. He's just been told that the estate is to be sold and that his life's work in keeping it going has been both wasted and taken for granted.

And the roses were those he'd collected in a bunch for the professor's new young wife Elena (Vanessa Kirby) whom he discovers rolling on the floor in a clinch with his best friend Michael Astrov (Tobias Menzies), the doctor who is exhausted by his non-stop travelling, drinking and efforts to preserve the environment.

The other great scene is the one where Elena intercedes with Michael on behalf of the plain, downtrodden Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay) only to find herself on the end of the doctor's unexpected passion; which throws her into a carnal turmoil of her own. Kirby plays this scene superbly and it casts a dangerous tingle through the rest of the play, even to the final departures.

Icke places the action on a big open four-poster-like set by Hildegard Bechtler that revolves very slowly throughout, creating bad sight-lines (and some inaudibility) in exchange for a sense of time passing; it revolves from right to left for the first three acts, then from left to right in the last and stops still for the soliloquies – strikingly delivered on the ground-floor apron – and one or two showdowns.

This gimmick is not as telling as it was in a Donmar Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by Sam Mendes) or the more recent Young Vic Streetcar (directed by Benedict Andrews, with Kirby as Stella). But it does suggest a world spinning out of kilter with the reality of the Almeida's brick walls, a separate planet: Rhys's anguish is screwed tighter with each non-Russian revolution.

Because of the neutrality of the setting, it's hard to get a grip on Richard Lumsden's impoverished landowner and hanger-on, who re-tunes his guitar every time he hits melodic continuity, or on Susan Wooldridge's ferociously regal countess, mother of the professor's first wife, who is reduced to dispensing stony old Queen Mary-like stares or hiding behind a newspaper.

Ann Queensberry is a delightful little old nurse wrapped up in her knitting, tin tea pot (no samovars here) and, at one point, an extremely plump live chicken, while McRae is an unusually cutting, Scottish professor whose idea of his own academic distinction is less vainglorious than downright nasty.

This doesn't fully explain how Elena would have been duped by his supposed lady-killing elegance and urbanity, but it makes this area of the play seem fresher and sharper than usual. What happens here really does hurt, and there's no summer haze or idyllic scenography to fall back on. If it's Icke's intention to show that life's hopeless, as well as brutish and short, he's succeeded big-time.

Uncle Vanya runs at the Almeida Theatre until 26 March.