Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning has not struck twice.
The physical production could not be bettered. Bruno Poet doesn’t so much light Rae Smith’s wonderfully suggestive, wood-toned, high-vaulted indoor-outdoor set — part conservatory, part-study — as ignite it. The intensity of his steeply angled light so floods the stage and irradiates the characters caught between indolence and industry that it makes you want to move in.
With the autumnal tone so securely established, the evening hums with promise, not least when Rickson wins a hugely welcome early laugh by interrupting the opening intimate exchange between Astrov (Richard Armitage) and Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) with the sudden appearance of Toby Jones’ excellent Vanya, who leaps into the scene having been hidden asleep in a chair.
Problems surface, however, with the text. Every writer/translator interpreting Chekhov adds, to a greater or lesser degree, their own voice. Working from a literal translation by Helen Rappaport, Conor McPherson has provided what he describes as an adaptation, but it’s more than usually “adapted.”
On the plus side, McPherson loses almost all of the archaisms of the language of this 1898 play and gently makes it sound more contemporary. There are slang expressions like “wanging on” and a single furious “f–k”, none of which are in the least obtrusive due to the easeful playing and feel of Rickson’s production. And McPherson’s much-expressed interest in the effects of alcohol resurface again here.
McPherson’s most interventionist work in his otherwise stripped-back text is the adding of monologues in which characters face front and tell us their thoughts and feelings. But such explanatory speeches only serve to underline the fact that too much self-knowledge by a character is dangerously undramatic.
At the risk of being labelled a purist, it is also bizarrely un-Chekhovian. The greatness of Chekhov lies chiefly in his controlled understatement. His characters almost never say what they mean, allowing us instead to sense and feel their thoughts and desires. He deals in show, rather than tell. By having characters explain themselves and their motives, scenes are leeched of texture and tension, and audiences are robbed of the pleasure of gleaning what lies beneath.
Take the character of the elderly professor’s beautiful young wife Yelena. It is hard to take your eyes off an actress as fine as Rosalind Eleazar, the unobtrusive standout in the recent London production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Starry Messenger.” Beneath her poised surface she switches fascinatingly between ennui and suppressed erotic tension. She handles her over-explanatory speech with exemplary detail, but her performance is already so complete, not a word of it is needed.
She’s matched by Jones’ restless, witheringly sarcastic Vanya, ricocheting between indolence and frustration at his arrogant and unusually bullish brother-in-law (Ciaran Hinds). Jones’s emotional precision means he’s alive to — and enlivens — every beat of the text, but not everyone is on his level.
The rest of the cast winningly create the sense of a longstanding household, but until his pain-filled climactic kiss with Yelena, Armitage is too generalized a love interest as Astrov, while the oddly young Aimee Lou Wood is miscast as Sonia. Rickson stages a misplaced kiss between her and Astrov with moving precision, but the numerous lines about her character being physically unattractive land oddly because Wood never seems so. Instead, she overplays her hand by being too obviously gauche.
Outside of Eleazar and Jones’s performances, the heartbreak in Chekhov’s writing is indicated rather than fully realized. Judged by Rickson own past record, this only intermittently touching and funny production is a disappointment.