Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Uncle Vanya; Nell Gwynn

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Uncle Vanya; Nell Gwynn

Article excerpt

Director Robert Icke has this to say of Chekhov's greatest masterpiece: 'Let the electricity of now flow into the old thing and make it function.' He uproots 'the old thing' from its natural setting and drops it down in no-man's land. It all feels modern. Aircraft buzz in the heavy summer air. A thunderstorm sets off a car alarm. English names have displaced their Russian originals. Telegin has turned into Cartwright. The childless but priapic Uncle Vanya has been renamed after a latex prophylactic, Uncle Johnny. Perhaps appropriately. These alterations create huge uncertainties of class, location and era. Who are these Bohemian dropouts swilling vodka in a nameless English shire without even a broadband connection to beguile their titanic boredom?

Uncle Johnny, played by dashing Paul Rhys in a hippie beard, strides energetically around the house like a rock star running a farm for a laugh. But why does he complain that his life over? He's 47, according to this version, and therefore younger than the main contenders for the US presidency. And not just a bit younger. A generation younger. Yet he thinks he's dying of old age. The eminent professor, who has battened off the estate for two decades, hasn't a shred of solemnity or forcefulness about him. He's a tie-less old baldy slobbing around in a pair of wellies. The idea that Uncle Johnny would have admired or even worshipped such a waddling dud destroys our interest and sympathy in either figure.

All Chekhov's brilliant and visionary characterisation is reduced to contemporary shorthand. Elena is a vacant Sloane. The doctor is a climate-change bore. Telegin is chippy folk singer. Sonya is a bolshie anarchist in combat trousers. But Sonya's particular tragedy belongs to Chekhov's era, not our own. It's absurd to imagine that a modern woman without beauty or wealth would be condemned to a life of loveless sterility. Even so, Sonya, whose ugliness is remarked on by everyone, needs to be played by a buck-toothed fatso pushing 40. Here we have a svelte young brunette in her mid-twenties, Jessica Brown Findlay, whose striking Grecian profile would grace a banknote. And although giving this key role to a rising star may help things at the box office it deprives the play's central motif, thwarted romance, of all its melancholy tunefulness. And then there's the set. Award-winning conceptualist Hildegard Bechtler has crowbarred the play on to a mobile platform bounded by thick goalposts. …

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