14 January 2021, The Tablet

Play for today


Play for today

Toby Jones’ Vanya: ‘a clumsy, farcical figure’
Photo: BBC/Angelica Films, Johan Persson


Uncle Vanya
BBC iPlayer

Great plays, like good wine, find new notes with time. Seeing the West End production of Uncle Vanya in January last year, its most striking topicality was Chekhov’s astonishingly prophetic 1899 concern with human damage to the planet.

Six weeks later, the hit show was cut off by the first coronavirus lockdown. But producer Sonia Friedman took advantage of the brief reopening of venues before the second closures to film it in the empty Harold Pinter Theatre, and this recording, now made available on BBC iPlayer, is an ideal hybrid theatre-TV delight for the third confinement.

This context reveals startling new meanings, unknowable in the theatre. The fact that Uncle Vanya takes place during an epidemic – Dr Astrov is dealing with a typhoid outbreak – is usually peripheral, but now feels central. And the way the characters stultify together in the same house over six months, which once seemed a depiction of provincial ennui and unsatisfied lives, now feels unavoidably resonant of lockdown.

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