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Review: Uncle Vanya on screen (Harold Pinter Theatre)

The cast of the show, which had to cut short its run due to the pandemic, return for a special recorded performance

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The cast of Uncle Vanya
© Johan Persson

Could there be a better play to put in cinemas right now than Uncle Vanya? Presented during less of a belle époque and more of a bel ennui, Vanya's isolated domestic setting, housing a fractious family thrown together by tragedy, hits all the right notes for our Covid-ridden circumstances.

Waves of lassitude wash over the characters, couped up in a countryside manor, constantly unsure if it is they, or the world beyond them, that is slowly decaying. At one point the local doctor, Astrov (a rugged, earnest Richard Armitage), produces a flurry of well-thumbed maps, tracing the slow disappearance of woodland across the area, while lambasting those around him for wasting their lives.

The doctor is there following a request from the wizened professor Alexandre (Roger Allam), beset by aches and pains after having retreated from metropolitan living to dwell with his brother-in-law (the titular Vanya, a typically magnificent Toby Jones) as well as his daughter Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood, making the sort of stage turn that goes above and beyond her already impressive moments in hit sitcom Sex Education). Accompanying him is his new wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar, presenting a form of dimmed luminosity as she grapples with the consequences of marrying an older man, blinkered by academia).

While the quality of Conor McPherson's writing (faithful, largely, to Chekhov) and Ian Rickson's initial staging has already proven to wow the critics (you can check out Sarah Crompton's top-notch review of the West End premiere here), a more pertinent question to ask might be, how well does the new cinematic production capture the live magic of an in-the-flesh experience?

The cast of Uncle Vanya
© Johan Persson

Ross MacGibbon, directing the screen version (filmed by the cast in August 2020, with all the necessary Covid tests used) alongside Rickson, plays things a lot differently (but no less effectively) than this year's previous on-stage / screen hit Hamilton. Beginning with the more conventional mid- to wide-shots, over time MacGibbon creeps the camera forwards, flooding the frame with the sparkling sorrow of Sonya's tear-ridden eyes, or Vanya's flicker of pride as her uncle hears her utter Chekhov's famous final lines.

MacGibbon and his team also make the, entirely justified, decision never to let us forget that we're on a West End stage. Bruno Poet's ghostlike cans hover in the background of shots, casting spectral light. A blue fire door sign pops up, stained with green mildew. Even more boldly, rather than locked down on tripod or crane, MacGibbon has a tendency to pepper scenes with hand-held shots, trembling as they hover metres from the actors. It makes the piece feel all the more organic – lived in. But this also draws out the tragedy of absent punters – jokes that should be met by ripples of laughter echo into nothingness.

Instead, the chorus of crickets in Ian Dickinson's sound design is the ad-hoc audience in an empty space. MacGibbon lets Rae Smith's meticulous set design shine through – small details are picked out and given pride of place – Nana's (Anna Calder-Marshall) move to light a candle at the side of the stage when Sonya's late mother, Vanya's sister, is mentioned in conversation.

Stage legend Allam (who was also in a run over at the Bridge Theatre when the pandemic hit) takes over Ciaran Hinds' role as the unwilling patriarch seemingly unable to connect with his daughter or family members. Whereas Hinds had a cultured naivité, Allam is a blustering, almost insufferable man – the epitome of calculating negligence, wilfully oblivious to the daily toil he places on his family members. A scabby, shabby presence that upsets the pleasant languor that Wood and Jones instill.

One final, haunting chapter comes by way of an epilogue – actors, exhausted, jubilant, hug each other as they slowly shuffle out of an empty West End auditorium, leaving the rows of blue seats to stand sentinel over an unoccupied stage. Hopefully not for too much longer.