February 25, 2016

A Monday Evening Visit to Uncle Vanya

Paul Rhys stars as John, our modern-day Uncle Vanya, photo courtesy of the Almeida Theatre
             Robert Icke, Associate Director at the Almeida Theatre, returns off the back of his Oresteia West End success with a reworking of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This production is not for the faint of heart, but rather for the seasoned theatregoer who appreciates a natural progression of events. Uncle Vanya’s aim is not to sugarcoat life, but to highlight the complexities of it – warts and all. The play spans three hours and 20 minutes, with three 10-minute intervals, so make sure you’re in it for the long haul.

             With a stream of great actors, Uncle Vanya’s cast includes: Jessica Brown Findlay (Sonya) and Tobias Menzies (Michael), both of whom you’ll know from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series, Paul Rhys (John), who is simply superb, Vanessa Kirby (Elena), Richard Lumsden (Cartwright), and Hilton McRae (Alexander) – among others.

             What I love about the Almeida is that, each time I visit, it sheds its skin to adopt a new one even more glorious than the last. Each show comes with its own unique stage assembly and I thought I was seeing things when I first set eyes on the Uncle Vanya setup. The cast is encased in a wooden frame, shaped into the bare bones of a 3D cube. Once my eyes had adjusted, I realized that the structure was in fact moving, albeit slowly. As someone on the outside looking in, as if at caged zoo animals, there is nowhere for the actors to hide. The stage places everyone in the limelight at one point or another, before it rotates to obscure some, whilst exposing others.

Elena (Vanessa Kirby) lives in a state of perpetual boredom, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan
             The reworked play’s central plotline hints at the subtle interactions that occur amongst individuals. Alexander, a well-established professor in the city, retreats to his countryside estate with his much younger and lust-worthy second wife, Elena. Through maintaining the estate, John (the brother of Alexander’s late first wife) and Sonya (Alexander’s daughter from his first wife) keep Alexander and Elena in the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to.

             John and Michael, Alexander’s doctor, become enamored with Elena, whose exquisite beauty and vapid personality makes for a deadly combination. Meanwhile, little Sonya loves Michael from afar, hiding in the shadows while she’s outshone by her stepmother’s looks. The crux of the play arrives when Alexander suggests selling the estate for Elena’s and his own monetary gain, a declaration that unhinges John to startling proportions.

             For a Monday night, Uncle Vanya certainly provided some heavy introspective viewing, but that’s Chekhov for you. With themes of stifling boredom and a “youth is wasted on the young” undercurrent, the audience is prone to agree with Michael’s sentiment: “Life is boring.” Amongst the highs and the lows of day-to-day living, there exists a resting equilibrium, which could be described as the monotony of life. Icke’s Uncle Vanya captures that in a painstaking commentary about the cynicism of human nature.

Doctor Michael (Tobias Menzies) becomes the unassuming target of a love triangle, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan
             The sad, hollow characters of Uncle Vanya seem to be stuck in limbo – merely surviving, rather than living. For instance, Sonya pleads with Elena, “Don’t be bored; it’s contagious.” It’s precisely that notion of boredom as contagion that floods the play. Elena manages to sap the life out of everyone around her, while not really having anything interesting to say while doing it. The soliloquys reveal a lot about the internal states of the characters. The conclusion? Perhaps it’s better not to think and not to philosophize with an intellectual mind. It can only lead to unsatisfactory ruminations, and thus, an unsatisfactory life.

             My favorite philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, penned “Hell is other people” in his existentialist play, No Exit, which is an absolutely enlightening read. Rather than being a physical place, Sartre suggests that hell is a metaphysical place. There’s only one word to describe being trapped in a room with vacuous, unbearable people complaining about inane, petty things, and that’s hell. Uncle Vanya perfectly embodies this idea for me. Not only are the characters tired of one another, but it’s also tiring as hell to watch them in their restless and perpetually unhappy states – ceaselessly pacing, pacing, pacing.    

John and Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay) share a heart-to-heart, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan
             To quote another philosopher, Albert Camus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Paul Rhys as John (our modern-day Uncle Vanya) certainly grapples with this rather bleak ultimatum. He deteriorates beautifully throughout the course of the play. As he teeters on the brink of exhaustion and being fed up, he bubbles over with heart-stopping vulnerability and frailty. Just as he begins to simmer, life’s state of affairs carries on as normal without him, as if nothing ever happened. The stage continues to move at a sluggish rate, like life’s cycle, which stops for nothing and no one.

             Uncle Vanya is running at the Almeida Theatre until March 26th. Showings of the play are relatively sold out, but you might still be able to grab Day Seats or returns. Check ticket availability here.

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