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Paul Rhys acts his age

A new adaptation of “Uncle Vanya”, with a stony-faced star

Robert Butler | January/February 2016

He was a drama student at RADA when he won his first movie role (“Absolute Beginners”) in 1986, but it was several years later, as Van Gogh’s younger brother in Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo”, that Paul Rhys wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Black hair flopping over a pallid face, fleshy lips and rheumy eyes flickering with emotion: here was a young actor as taut as a violin string. When he played a scene in a café opposite a young woman in a bonnet it was a toss-up as to who was the more feminine. On stage, as the poet A.E. Housman (in Tom Stoppard’s “Invention of Love”) or as Hamlet (where he looked as bleached as Yorick’s skull), his thoroughbred nerviness was matched by sudden shafts of sweetness. Rhys developed a nice line in real-life characters: another brother, this time Charlie Chaplin’s (opposite Robert Downey junior), Romantic composers (Beethoven and Chopin), even Labour’s “Prince of Darkness”, Peter Mandelson.

Across the intervening years, this tall, willowy figure has bulked out a little. By “The Assets”, a short-lived mini-series in which he starred as a CIA operative selling secrets to the Russians, the quicksilver face had turned stony. The young man’s volatile sensitivities had been layered over with caution, reticence and disappointment. It’s the perfect moment, then, for Rhys to make his debut at the Almeida in the title role of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. Bored, disillusioned and rejected, Vanya is a great study in the vulnerabilities of middle-age. Robert Icke, responsible for two recent Almeida hits with “1984” and “Oresteia”, will be directing his own, new adaptation of the play. It looks set to enjoy more success than its title character. ~ ROBERT BUTLER

Uncle Vanya Almeida Theatre, London, Feb 5th to Mar 25th

 

Theatre AT A GLANCE

Cleansed (Dorfman, London, from Feb 16th). Sarah Kane wrote five plays before she committed suicide aged 28. Her first, “Blasted”, was famously dismissed by the Daily Mail as a “disgusting feast of filth”. This revival of her third play, about atrocity and love, marks her posthumous debut at the National Theatre.

Battlefield (Young Vic, London, Feb 3rd-27th). Thirty years after Peter Brook’s landmark production of “The Mahabharata”, Brook, now 90, stages the central section from that epic, about the Bharata family’s struggle to find inner peace in a world of conflict.

The Crucible (Walter Kerr Theatre, Broadway, from Feb 29th). The title of Arthur Miller’s play about the 17th-century Salem witch trials suggests a melting pot in which elements are subjected to intense heat. Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan join Sophie Okenedo to show their mettle.

Don Quixote (Swan Theatre, Stratford, from Feb 25th). David Threlfall returns to the RSC for the first time since he played poor, innocent Smike in the landmark 1980 production of “Nicholas Nickleby”. This time he plays another innocent: a middle-aged, wannabe knight-errant with a lance and a head full of chivalric ideals. ~ RB

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