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A CurtainUp London London Review
Uncle Vanya

"The Don Juan of college dons!" — John
Uncle Vanya
Paul Rhys as John (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Robert Icke has stripped the cliches from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to give a different and original reading of the play about the family who struggle to support an academic in law through trying to make the farm generate enough income. Vanya, which is a diminutive of Ivan, which is the Russian for John, is renamed John; Astrov the doctor is now called Michael in this modern dress production.

Uncle John is seen on the poster for the play lying in a bed of fallen leaves something which is referred to near the end of the play by the doctor when he tells John that if he is to commit suicide to do it outside and be found lying on the leaves. Like Hamlet, Vanya is unable to take his own life lacking not the decision but the competence to follow things through. Twice the gun fails to go off for him.

From the outset John (Paul Rhys) does little, letting his niece Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay) look after the animals, the estate, the crops. Sonya has lost all femininity with her modern man's shirt and trousers, working men's clothes reflecting the drudge that is her life. In this production we feel the stultifying boredom of life in the country, the life Chekhov's Three Sisters were trying to escape. Chekhov we know studied medicine and normally the doctor Astrov has an exciting ecological and conservation vision for the forests ahead of his time. Michael (Tobias Menzies) is less noble in this version, his plans bore Elena (Vanessa Kirby) and he is seen as a drunk and womanizer. Elena may have married the professor for his intellectual kudos but she is longing for a sexual relationship with someone younger and this guilty passion is seen as more than a stolen kiss onstage. The professor Alexander (Hilton McCrae) has a makeover and becomes less selfish and inconsiderate than usual. Mostly he is the villain of the piece, the man who bleeds the estate dry which is only his, by his previous marriage to Vanya's sister.

While the performances are good, I longed for the Russian context of both pre-revolution and being stuck in the country as opposed to somewhere you could get in a car to escape. My other issue is with Hildegard Bechtler's slow revolve set with large corner pillars and other stage furniture often blocking both speaking characters. Yes it contributes to the feeling of inertia. Maybe this set works better with a surrounding audience which the Almeida doesn't have, but I found it annoying to have such poor sightlines.

Paul Rhys seemed to be hurting so much as John that I worried for his mental health performing this play eight times a week. Robert Icke has made me think about Chekhov by turning the sympathies on their head, but I feel next time I want to see this play back in nineteenth century Russia.
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Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
In a new version by Robert Icke
Directed by Robert Icke
Starring: Paul Rhys, Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa Kirby, Tobias Menzies
With: Richard Lumsden, Ann Queensberry, Susan Wooldridge
Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costumes: Jessica Curtis
Lighting: Jackie Shemesh
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Three hours 30 minutes with three intervals
Box Office 020 7359 4404
Booking to 26th March 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th February 2016 performance at the Almeida, Upper Street London N1
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