The filmed performance of Ian Rickson’s production of Uncle Vanya is astounding. A beautiful yet utterly heartbreaking piece of theatre with faultless performances, a bittersweet play that will live long in the memory. Unmissable.
Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) and her Uncle Vanya (Toby Jones) throw their lives into maintaining the crumbling family estate, only visited occasionally by the radical and inspiring local doctor Astrov (Richard Armitage). However, when Sonya’s father, Professor Serebryakov (Roger Allam), suddenly returns with his restless, alluring, new wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), long-hidden truths start to emerge.
When COVID struck down the world, it naturally cascaded to the halting of theatre productions. However, how they would keep going under such circumstances remained an important question. Luckily with the increase of productions being filmed for live performances in cinemas, Uncle Vanya could make its way to our screens. Thank goodness it has, as this is an emotional tour de force from beginning to end.
What strikes immediately in Uncle Vanya is Rae Smith’s impeccable art direction. With a functional set for any moment, we have a glorious window that cascades light depending on the time of day or weather. It also allows for scenes in which a storm is outside to hold more importance to the moment. From a technical standpoint, subtle moments are hidden within that help bring the production to a more intimate feel. The camera lurks over shoulders and closes in far more than you would expect that at times you almost forget that this is all set on a stage. When Sonya and Yelena speak directly to the camera, it jolts you yet somehow pulls you in further to their aches.
Having not experienced Uncle Vanya previously, it took time to adjust to the emotional battering that you take as an audience member to the pain that goes through each of these characters. Sonya is hopelessly in love with a man who will never love her back, which destroys not only her but others around her as they see it and hope for her to move on. She is too good a person to be lumbered with such a hopeless cause.
Having such a relentlessly positive outlook takes its toll on her, though, and as we continue witnessing her admitted struggle, we fear for her. Wood is heartbreakingly brilliant here. Her eyes are full of hope as she watches Astrov. So when those beautiful eyes begin to fill up time and again with tears, it devastates you. She is an innocent victim of her father’s whims. Like Vanya, she had no say in anything, yet she continues. The performance of Aimee Lou Wood should open up all the doors for her.
With Astrov, we have a man who is such a big picture with his thinking and hopeful of a better future that the destruction of his job drags him down. All he sees is hopelessness and death in his profession, so he tries to correct nature instead, to have something live on, something he can keep alive. Yet, he is utterly broken, and as the mountain of pain from his community ways on him like a heavy cloak, he struggles. Armitage transfixes you at every turn as he spiels off into wonderful tangents of idealism that he knows can never be accomplished. You, like the women of this run-down estate, become mesmerised by him.
Yelena struggles with the realisation that she is married to a man who she no longer loves and is far too old for her to see a future with. She is stuck and now pushed out of her urban living; she has plateaued on the estate. Her boredom and accidental lack of interest have spilled out to the others in the home, particularly the smitten Astrov whose work comes to a practical crawl when around her. Yelena needs out of the house but stuck between a rock and a hard place to make sure Sonya is okay. She is torn. Eleazar’s languid opening slowly begins to unfurl as Yelena’s mental health worsens, culminating in a breathtaking scene series of scenes with Sonya and Astrov.
The Professor is easily unlikeable, and as the play continues, the feeling of wanting him gone from that house and these people rises immeasurably. An utterly insufferable man who makes no attempts to reconnect with his only child, he sees what is only good for him and nothing more. Be it to doing the opposite of the medical advice given to him by Astrov or by accidentally tormenting his staff and family by having them work on any whim that strikes him. Again, Allam plays the role wonderfully. You never get a reason or a chance to like him, so when he holds that family meeting, anger comes deep within you, and they want to yell at him and warn the family of how dishonest he.
Then we come to Uncle Vanya himself. A man who has given everything for his family has squandered the best years of his life for those that he loves, and only now. As he reaches his late 40’s does it finally strike him what he has lost—missing out on the chance of love, a family, his independence, even inheritance. With the Professor’s return, his world has been turned upside down. His work ethic has gone and been replaced by cynicism and alcohol. If not for young Sonya, you wonder where he would be.
So gone are his aspirations he merely cries out for Sonya to keep him busy, almost to distract himself from the life he has been struck with. In a play full of heartbreakingly and breathless performances, somehow Toby Jones shines brightest. At the start, you wonder if you can connect with him as he becomes almost petulant in his antic. However, as we venture through the acts, your heart warms to him, and we find, like Sonya, a decent man who puts everyone before himself, the fact that he is more of a father to Sonya than the Professor signifies that. It just so happens that he has realised it at the worst moment, and an evitable spiral begins.
Under Ross MacGibbon’s direction, the intensity of those close up’s n Uncle Vanya, as mentioned, really takes you away from the theatre aspect in which it thrived during its run. We are given a new beast by adding these small changes, and it is an utterly captivating one. The camera moves in the more suffocated and fraught the story becomes. Sorrow and regret are rife with every character, and you feel it. You feel everything that these characters do. Almost all of them are in a state of distress, their faces on the precipice of releasing those tears, and when those tears come, you have to grapple deep within you not to join in. Yet, for all of the sorrow, humour is abundant in this play. While the audience is not there to utter a laugh, we somehow find ourselves doing so.
Uncle Vanya takes your breath away and becomes a performance and experience that you never see coming. Certainly in this case anyway. With truly spectacular performances, this is an intense and rewarding watch.
Dazzler Media presents Uncle Vanya on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital now.
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