Adapted by writer Conor McPherson, staged by Ian Rickson and directed for film here by Ross MacGibbon. It showed up on BBC Four one night, and I clicked over to it because it features my previous collaborator Richard Armitage, and he’s always revelatory when he stretches a bit. UNCLE VANYA was at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2019 – I have a feeling I knew about that? Turns out this was shot during lockdown, when Covid closed the theatre it was being performed in. They decided to preserve the staging and performances by forming a bubble and shooting the play in a hybrid of theatre and film. The hybridity is seen in examples like breaking the fourth wall — when members of the cast address the audience, they would have stepped forward, perhaps been isolated, but film allows for the close-up, making those fourth-wall monologues more intimate and fluid. The shifting between methods is often electrifying, and creates a real dynamism in crucial scenes like Vanya with the gun.
The set is stunning. Autumnal glory, both beautiful and promising decay. Toby Jones is magical, Richard Armitage pairs his intensity with some carefully-observed, heartbreaking little motions. and Roger Allam is, as ever, a delight to watch. But the writing! The adaptation is timeloose – sometimes with the sound of the nineteenth century, sometimes explosively contemporary. This fits VANYA, a turn-of-the-century piece sitting on the pivot point between past and future. And, my god, it flows and crackles and surprises.