Here is an extraordinary, transfiguring leap from stage to screen. Ian Rickson’s production of Uncle Vanya was cut short by lockdown in the final weeks of its run. Now, in collaboration with director Ross MacGibbon, he has not merely captured his original staging but dazzlingly reinterpreted it. This is not, like the NTLive broadcasts, an attempt to transmit a theatrical event. It is a new thing. The film crackles with fresh intensity – and gains new shadows from the timing of its release.
Chekhov’s 1899 play is prefaced by shots of the cast arriving – dungarees and masks – at the Harold Pinter theatre for the first time since March: shaking out umbrellas, walking into an empty auditorium. As the action begins, something extraordinary happens. We are transplanted in time and place – there is nothing 21st-century British about Rae Smith’s lofty, crumbling design, the sodden glimmer of Bruno Poet’s lighting or old Nana with her long dark dress and bun, patiently waiting on everyone. Yet the stage is charged with the climate of Covid-19. That combination of sluggishness and highly tuned irritability, the feeling of time mysteriously slipping by, maliciously cheating people of their lives, is everywhere: in Toby Jones’s crosspatch, crumpled Vanya and Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena, so heavy with disappointment she is scarcely able to move. The lassitude of Chekhov’s characters is sometimes spoken of as if it were a mental elegance: here, it is plainly toxic; everyone might be hung over after a too-long afternoon nap.
When I saw this on stage in February the use of direct address to the audience struck me as too blunt. Filmed close-ups banish this difficulty – it is as if we have a direct wire into the speakers’ brains. The strong original cast is enhanced by the addition of Roger Allam, effortlessly condescending as the pampered professor. In this sharp modern version by Conor McPherson, the environmental alarm of the play is more startling than ever. It is often said that an elderly play is nevertheless a play for today. This one truly is.
Susannah Clapp is the Observer’s theatre critic. Visit unclevanyaplay.com for cinema screenings