Ian Rickson’s cinematic production of Conor McPherson’s adaptation of the Chekhov classic Uncle Vanya has truly changed the game of modern theatre. With the West End hit having prematurely closed like so many others, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, its digital return has proven to be perhaps an even greater success, surpassing all other streamed performances through its stunning fusion of theatre and film.
The play’s eponymous Uncle Vanya (Toby Jones) and his niece Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood) are suddenly surrounded by their increasingly fractured friends and family, stifled by their too close contact on their declining family estate. What results is drinking to despair, familial bust ups, and broken hearts.
Currently available on BBC iPlayer for just under a year, this digital production of Uncle Vanya, filmed in its original home of the Harold Pinter theatre, is not just another static capturing of a live performance, but a filmic rendering that defines a new relationship between stage and screen. It gets to the heart of the story, what it means to return theatre amidst a global pandemic, and how we strive for hope in even the darkest of times: it is a triumph. With the use of multiple cameras and exceptional editing, what is produced is not just a performance filming, nor is it transposed to an utterly different medium, but something in between. It feels like a true ‘theatre film’, and has surely set new standards for what it means to digitally capture and stream the performing arts.
To return to the play itself, the stage design and use of lighting are particularly fantastic elements that feel just as real on screen as they would have in person. It is remarkably prosaic, yet scrupulously detailed, and altogether utterly realistic. With its filmic adaptation, it seems there hasn’t been any additional audio, which I personally applaud as it keeps Uncle Vanya grounded in its theatrical roots. However the adaptation itself does not seem particularly fresh or innovative. Whilst the performances are sublime, as is to be expected with the new addition of Roger Allam, and there are hints of environmental concern and women’s rights, it seems the majority of the play’s emotive response is generated by our own imbuing with newfound pandemic resonances.
Uncle Vanya has long since been considered both universal and timeless in its exploration of the loneliness of the human condition, even when constantly surrounded by one’s nearest and dearest, yet I fear our own current ultra-sharp familiarity with such themes almost takes away from the production. It is all too easy to see ourselves in it, rather than take away the play’s moral lessons into our lives upon departure. So whilst this production has truly broken new ground when it comes to combining theatre and film, it is perhaps our own current lives themselves that allow this play to be so deeply felt, not its otherwise rather pedestrian adaptation.
Words by Emily Radakovic.
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