My heart sank when I read in the programme for this revival of Uncle Vanya that Tobias Menzies, the actor playing Dr Astrov, had a spent a day in the woods learning about forestry as preparation. I don't begrudge him his day out in the lovely woods at Ightham Mote, but I really wonder how useful this kind of research is. Whatever Uncle Vanya is about, it isn't about forestry.
Robert Icke's reinvented and rewritten Oresteia was among the theatrical highlights of 2015 for me, and he was also responsible for the outstanding stage version of Orwell's 1984. But with Chekhov, I fear his bold approach to the classics has led him stumbling into a minefield. There are two problems with trying to rewrite and update a play like Uncle Vanya, and the director doesn't solve either of them.
The first problem is that what Chekhov wrote was well nigh perfect; any attempts to rewrite and produce something better will fail. Icke seems to have very little faith in what Chekhov actually wrote, inserting some ill-advised monologues to the audience in which his leading characters breach the fourth wall and tell us what they are really thinking. He also slows the play down so it lasts three hours and twenty minutes, with some unbearable pauses, and he often substitutes text for subtext, losing a lot of the subtlety of the original. Icke's characters shout at each other in a way that Chekhov's don't.
The second problem is that abandoning the time and place in which the play is set risks losing more than it gains. For me, Chekhov's plays are embedded in the social reality of late 19th century provincial Russia, and the characters' dilemmas are hard to understand outside this context. It is a paradox that the plays' universality is also rooted in the specific matrix of geography, history and class which Chekhov brings to life. Abandon the matrix without creating a different, equally plausible one, and the characters float around in space.
Anya Reiss managed this conjuring trick fairly successfully with her adaptations of Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters, setting the first on a run-down farm in Lincolnshire, the second on a remote British island and the third in an abandoned British imperial outpost somewhere in the Middle East. But Icke's version of Uncle Vanya has no such anchors; there are vague references to an estate and a farm, but the idea lacks any plausibility. The idea that Vanya and Sonya have been slaving away on an impoverished estate for 35 years to subsidise the career of a top professor art history doesn't make much sense in 20the century Britain. Nor does the idea of Astrov as a doctor who performs his own operations while dabbling in part-time forestry. Chekhov was acutely sensitive to the turbulent social changes taking place as the Tsarist regime stumbled towards its demise; in all his four great plays, the members of the Russian provincial gentry are living on borrowed time. But in this adaptation, there is no sense of a ticking clock.
Hildegard Bechtler's set is a revolving box, sparsely furnished, which allows the characters to be seen from various angles, and occasionally from none. Despite the sightline problems, I liked it.
Despite my reservations about Icke's approach, I found this a rewarding evening because of the actors. Paul Rhys delivers a wonderful performance as Vanya ('Uncle Johnny' in this production), creating a twitching wreck of a middle-aged man waking up to the fact that his life has been wasted. I can't remember any portrayal of Vanya that I have found more moving. Tobias Menzies makes the most of the ambiguities of Astrov and Jessica Brown Findlay is excellent as Sonia. As Elena, Vanessa Kirby lacks the required statuesque charisma and artificial dazzling beauty that other actresses such as Helen McCrory have brought to the part, though she improves greatly as the play goes on and Elena turns out to be made of flesh and blood. I also liked Hilton McRae as Alexander the professor and Richard Lumsden as the sponging Telegin (here renamed as Cartwright). Both he and the Nanny (Ann Queensberry) are unfortunately not given any kind of social context for their parts.