26 February 2016

Uncle Vanya at the Almeida Theatre

I knew of the Almeida Theatre mostly through my extensive lunchtime walks around Islington and I was looking for the opportunity to see something there when they duly obliged by putting on Uncle Vanya.

There is a risk that I might be coming something of a Chekhov completist but I have yet to find a good reason not to see a production of one of his plays and so I went to see this one. Besides, I had only seen Uncle Vanya once before and that was at the Arcola Theatre way back in May 2011. Since then there had also been the BBC drama production on radio but that only partially counts.

I did not know the inside of the theatre at all so I tried to play safe and went for the front row in the Circle where seat A18 cost me £38, the top price.

The seating was a little awkward as it was in benches of four people which meant that it was harder to get in and out of. It did not help that my bench was at a slight angle to the bench next to me as that reduced the limited legroom even more. I spent most of the evening touching other men's legs. The view was not brilliant either, though it was OK, and the lighting rig was less distracting when there was action on the stage to watch.

The stage was a black cube which made for a duller than usual picture, all you can really see is the rigging and some of the people downstairs.

This Uncle Vanya was almost an endurance test running for 200 minutes with, unusually, three 10 minute intervals. That is even longer than Scarface (170 minutes) and Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes). The radio version of Uncle Vanya was 110 minutes.

The seating discouraged me from leaving at all, though I would have loved a beer or three, so I sat there for the full 200 minutes trying to keep my blood flowing to my feet.

A play that long was going to have some ups and downs and several parts of Vanya did not work for me. Some of the humour, such as the constant retuning of a guitar, seemed out of place. Some of the emotional heights were reached too quickly, especially in the first part, and what was probably meant to be reaction came across as over reaction. The stage slowly rotated which I hated in Streetcar Named Desire and which I hated here too. Vanya was renamed Jimmy for no apparent purpose and to no great effect. The ending was far too slow.

Fortunately there was much that did work, and worked very well.

The play revolved around three strong characters all played superbly. Paul Rhys as Vanya took most of the credits though, for me, he was outshone by Tobias Menzies as the doctor, being in Game of Thrones probably helped here, and my star of the show was Vanessa Kirby as the young married woman, Elena, who they both fancied. It was only afterwards that I realised that I had seen her, and had loved her, before in another Chekhov, Three Sisters at the Young Vic. She was the vivacious centre of the story and beautiful with it, which made the three men's desire for her completely believable.

At some point they sung Lust for Life which seemed entirely appropriate and that idea may also have been borrowed from Three Sisters.

One of the techniques used that I thought worked well was that each of the main characters spoke directly to the audience at some point and, to reinforce that that was different from the main play, they stood down from the stage to do so.

I found Uncle Vanya to be something of a curate's egg but with enough good bits in it to keep me enthralled and entertained. I will continue to see Chekhov plays but am less sure about going back to the awkward Almeida.

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