The warm, glowing lights of a house, viewed from the outside, remind us that home is a safe, cosy, warm place. In Robert Icke’s storming Uncle Vanya, we are shown how quickly and easily that warm glow can become suffocating and stifling.
Hildegard Bechtler’s barn-like set gradually revolves throughout the show, driving home Icke’s message that these people are not going anywhere as the world keeps turning. Where many productions choose to have the characters lounging around in a state of ennui, casually bemoaning their lot, Icke’s extraordinarily languid production shows us, with absolute clarity, that these people are all desperately unhappy.
It’s quite harrowing to watch, actually, as Jessica Brown Findlay’s contained and edgy Sonya cries out that she and her Uncle Johnny (all the names in this version are anglicised) are unhappy, looking to her father for help, solace, solutions. Paul Rhys is a superb John, slouching through the house and suddenly hitting crisis point – “I’m 47”, he shouts, terrified that he has wasted his life. There is something of Mark Heap about Rhys, as he veers between despair and mania, and leaves us in no doubt that this is a man at rock bottom, keening his pain to a mostly uncaring family.
Icke does not shy away from showing us the deep depression into which John, Sonya and perhaps Elena have sunk. The routine work of the farm distracts John and Sonya most of the time, but the arrival of Alexander (Hilton McRae) and his young, beautiful wife, Elena (Vanessa Kirby) upsets their pattern and allows the possibility of other lives to creep into this frozen house.
Tobias Menzies is superb as the exhausted doctor, torn between glamorous Elena and down-trodden Sonya, passionate about forest maintenance and as lost and lonely as the rest of the characters. All of the characters are trapped by their circumstances, and the sometimes excruciating slowness of this production plays with the monotony of day-to-day life exquisitely. Simmering tensions can be felt in the prolonged silences, and the audience waits for them to boil over into dangerous, screaming resentment and terror in the face of the relentless march of time.
Icke is a master of time: after his Oresteia, overseen by a huge, ticking clock, this production makes time something elastic, chewy, distorted. Icke directs with absolute clarity, aided greatly by his own colloquial and beautiful adaptation. When the script demands pomposity, Icke’s adaptation and direction ensure that it comes with an undercurrent of self-awareness and mockery. It’s extremely clever.
As a portrait of a mid-life crisis, this Uncle Vanya doesn’t put a foot wrong, but what lifts Icke’s production event higher is that this is not just John’s play; Sonya, Elena and the doctor are all given a life beyond the text, making this a play about people, about life, rather than just one man. That is not to say that Rhys is secondary – on the contrary, his performance across three plus hours is stunning – but the interactions and tensions between all of the characters are masterfully done.
As the set keeps turning and nothing changes, the characters splinter, reach for each other, realise that they are alone in an uncaring world. The relationships and longings are delicately handled by a uniformly superb cast, and John’s total break down in Act 3 suddenly feels as though it were inevitable. It is an extraordinary production of a play that gets right to heart of the human condition, showing us complicated people with desires and needs, fighting against circumstance and expectation.
Uncle Vanya is on at the Almeida until 26th March 2016. Click here for tickets.