Chekhov’s rueful ode to middle age, lost love and the fading of hopes and ambitions has rarely been as luminous and piercing as it is here. The adaptation is by Conor McPherson, whose own plays have an easy, natural lyricism and a warm, direct humanity. Direction is by Ian Rickson, who helped make McPherson’s name back in the 1990s with his premiere production of the Irish playwright’s drama of ghosts and grief, The Weir. Together with a superb cast and a gorgeous, sensitive design by Rae Smith, they create a version of this familiar classic that feels truly timeless, and truly – quietly – tragic. Toby Jones, playing the title role, is the box office draw. But this really is a bittersweet slice of life, in which even the bit-part players suffer with a quiet heroism, often unnoticed, with the scantest of comforts.
Smith’s set, beautifully lit by Bruno Poet, locates the action in an elegant but dilapidated conservatory, shot through with shafts of sunlight and dancing motes of dust. The sinewy branches of trees and clutching creepers have wound their way in through the broken upper panes of glass; this is a place under siege, from the seismic social changes of revolution, from declining prosperity, and from nature itself. The environment in revolt – a theme echoed in the ecological concerns of Richard Armitage’s local doctor, Astrov – is an image that recurs, and that feels strikingly modern: Aimee Lou Wood’s young, earnest Sonya, Vanya’s devoted niece, has a touch of Greta Thunberg. And the costumes, though they still have an unobtrusive period flavour, wouldn’t look out of place in the 21st century: floaty, romantic dresses, loose trousers, rumpled shirts.
Jones’ Vanya emerges unexpectedly from a high-backed chair where he has been drunkenly slumbering. He is a man only too aware of his own ridiculousness, his rage and frustration-fuelled, self-conscious clowning giving way to an inner personality that is generous, gentle, dogged. When in the same room with Rosalind Eleazar’s gorgeous, self-preserving, listless bohemian-chic Yelena, glamorous second wife of his dead sister’s husband, pompous professor Serebryakov, he assiduously tears his gaze away, a moment too late, from the neckline of her low-cut dress. His admiration is helpless, and hopeful in spite of himself, and in that, it is the ultimate, unrelenting torment.
Armitage’s doctor Astrov, too, knows he is fading. He frets about his weight, his hair, the decline of his masculine physical charms, much to the amusement of the elderly servant Nana – a marvellously detailed performance from Anna Calder-Marshall. When he walks away from the besotted and always overlooked Sonya, Calder-Marshall gives Wood a consoling, tender touch on the shoulder that eloquently conveys years of silent sympathy and understanding. Peter Wight’s figure of fun, the neighbour Telegin, has a discreet wisdom and clarity of vision, observing all the heartache around him and staving off loneliness by permitting the whole household to make him their clown. Dearbhla Molloy as Vanya’s mother, meanwhile, conceals her fears for the future, and her regrets for the past, behind a grande dame manner. There can be no doubt that all the women in the play have had to keep quiet and compromise, and that it has cost them all dearly.
As for Ciaran Hinds as Serebryakov, he is poison – selfish, venal, manipulative and needy, wreaking destruction on the meagre lives of the others, seemingly without a pang of conscience. He brings about a cruel ending to a desperately sad family drama, of the kind that happens, unremarked, every day. And that is this production’s achievement: We may know Chekhov’s mournful play well, but Rickson and McPherson bring it home.