Director Robert Icke has become the great hope of British theater. The 29-year-old has a rare talent for tapping into a text’s driving forces. He staged “1984” not as a possible future, but as a warning from history. Last year’s “Oresteia,” compressed and contemporized, felt like a box-set thriller. Now, bringing the same scrutiny to “Uncle Vanya” at the Almeida Theater, he gives us Chekhov in high-definition, its every texture exposed; a study in stasis. His meticulousness might hinder the play’s momentum and, for all its lit-crit insights, it’s more moral than it is moving. Small bother, though: This is rich, wry and wise – level-up stuff.
Like playwright Annie Baker, whose version of “Uncle Vanya” played New York’s Soho Rep in 2012, Icke gives Chekhov a contemporary, colloquial update, slowing stage time to something more like life. The names are anglicized – Vanya is Uncle John (Paul Rhys), sometimes Johnny — although it’s not specifically set in England. “To leave them in Russian,” the director’s note explains, “would be to make strange that which Chekhov intended ordinary.”
This is Icke’s way: He finds pinpoint images that pull the play into the present — earrings on middle-aged men, or a young woman (Sonya, played by “Downton Abbey” alum Jessica Brown Findlay) dressed in shabby mens’ shirts. He stays faithful to the original but stretches it all a bit further, upping its contrast, reactivating its drama. Astrov and Yelena don’t just kiss, they rip one another’s clothes off and roll about on the floor.
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You see the play afresh and, moreover, in full. At three and a half hours (three 10 minute intervals keep us alert), Icke’s version gives each interaction its due. Abstract ideas – age, beauty, time, work, love – glide past one another like orbiting planets. It really is profound, heaving with life.
On Hildegard Bechtler’s slow-revolve of a wooden set – always moving, but going nowhere – there’s a sleepy atmosphere. People sit and read newspapers, toy with Rubik’s Cubes, tune guitars. Everything’s unhurried. Nothing’s urgent. Leaving on call, Tobias Menzies’ doctor puts his watch back on, as if time, here, were irrelevant. Ian Dickinson’s soundscape highlights the silence. Wood creaks, rain falls, an airplane whirs overhead.
Out of this emerges a study of inaction: the ways we waste time and the ways time wastes us. John and Sonya bury themselves in work – but, as the eco-friendly doctor says, “God only knows what our real work is.” Icke peppers proceedings with images of disrepair: guitars that detune, roofs that spring leaks. Furniture piles up on Bechtler’s set until, without anyone noticing, there are too many rugs and too many chairs. It’s the exact opposite of Michael’s beloved forests, disappearing bit by bit, year on year.
Rhys plays the title role as a man incapable of imposing himself. He’s too soft for it – the burr of his beard matches that of his voice. Life’s held him back – through grief, labor or simply personality – and he’s held back from life. When John notes, “I could have been a Schopenhauer or Dostoyevsky,” you almost believe him.
Icke’s great on the agonies of middle-age. Rhys shows us the ache of 47 year-old knees, but Hilton McRae (as the professor) suggests the tortures ahead – gout, breathlessness, worse. Even Elena (Vanessa Kirby), at 27, thinks herself “old.” The play’s attuned to the particular darkness of men, and the soothing presence of women. The lonesomeness at the play’s heart becomes unmissable, as three drunken fortysomethings howl Bowie songs at the moon.
The production is exquisitely acted. McRae catches the pomp of a man who’ll use a wooden chair as a lectern in his own sitting room, while Menzies finds the underlying oddity of Astrov, a darkness that surfaces like a long-range submarine. Brown Findlay’s Sonya, so in want of a decent conditioner and a confidence boost, is quite wrenching to watch, so entirely and so hopelessly in love, while Kirby is a superlative Elena: lithe, fickle, hypocritical, shallow and yet always sympathetic. It’s a performance that confirms her as the outstanding stage actress of her generation, capable of the most unexpected choices. Fumbling with Astrov, she gets her head stuck in her jumper – for all her outward ease, she’s as clumsily human as any of them.
However, Icke asks us to analyze these people, not feel for them. Its slowness prevents momentum; its constant significance, credibility. Icke’s knowingness, though amusing, can get in the way.
His sincerity can clear a path though. At the end, Michael holds up a globe and lays a finger on Africa. The heat, he says, must be unbearable: “Now, I mean.” It pulls us back into the present; a direct accusation. Their inaction is all of ours.