Toby Jones has the audience giggling the moment he appears, surging out of a daytime nap, hitherto out of sight, at the back of the stage. This is a brilliant study – funny and heart-breaking – of a desperately depressed middle-aged man who keeps just this side of sanity by turning every disappointment into a bitter, sardonic joke. Until, that is, he is pushed over the edge by unrequited passion for the beautiful, languid – and equally unhappy – Yelena (lazily elegant Rosalind Eleazar) and the selfish financial demands of her academic husband, his brother-in-law. Vanya’s incompetence – he can’t even satisfactorily pop a bubble sound to indicate the professor’s worthlessness – at seduction and attempted murder is both risible and painful to watch, perfectly capturing Chekhov’s nuanced mood.
Ian Rickson’s production and Conor McPherson’s unfussy adaptation bring out the extent to which all the main characters – the doctor Astrov, Vanya, Sonya his niece, touchingly played by Aimee Lou Wood, and even Yelena – sadly underestimate their potential while nevertheless being disastrously self-absorbed. A couple of them address the audience directly: somewhere out there someone might understand. Only the professor (Ciarán Hinds, rightly unlovable) overestimates his ability while lacking any human empathy or self-knowledge.
The acting of the whole ensemble beautifully suggests a group of people imprisoned together in the countryside, sometimes loving but generally failing to understand each other. Relationships are delineated with forensic care in many tiny details – Sonya surreptitiously sniffing the socks of Astrov whom she adores, for instance.
Astrov, a doctor like Chekhov, has a love of nature, of forests and wild places akin to Chekhov’s own. Richard Armitage gives him a faded glamour, desperate, alcohol-driven playfulness and a sadness born of frustration at the limitations of his achievement. His forbidden love for Yelena is heart-breaking, yet another failure.
Rae Smith’s set is atmospheric while avoiding cliché; there isn’t a samovar to be seen.