Uncle Vanya review from 2002

  • Date:
    Wednesday, September 18, 2002
    Review by:
    Alan Bird

    Sam Mendes extraordinary and gifted 10-year career at the Donmar is now coming to its conclusion and to mark his exit he has chosen two classic plays Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. Both these plays are to be performed by the same cast headed by the irrepressible Simon Russell Beale.

    Sam Mendes has chosen Brian Friel’s translation of “Uncle Vanya”, which at times is a bit free with the text, but often in ways that adds to the deliciously bitter/sweet pathos of this story.

    Tragic unrequited love and desire runs like a fine thread throughout this play, which slowly begins to unravel, revealing simmering anger and bitterness as it does so. The production flows with sexual tension and longing. The moment Yelena, played by Helen McCrory, saunters onto the stage oozing sensuality and then exits, leaving behind her a freshly picked flower in full bloom, one feels the centrifugal force of desire which will soon have the characters spinning in ever widening circles of loneliness and dejection.

    Simon Russell Beale’s Uncle Vanya initially appears comical in his tragic cynicism, he stares open mouthed at Yelena, he lies on the table like a love struck teenager imagining what it would be like to lie with Yelena in his arms. When he walks in on Yelena and Mikhail, played by Mark Strong, kissing in each other’s arms, he stands and gawks with despondency. When interrogated by Mikhail demanding the return of the Morphine that Vanya has stolen from him, he pouts and sulks like a child. For that is what this Uncle Vanya is, a child who wishes to be loved. Even when the pain and indignation becomes too much his eruption of anger looks likes a child’s tantrum. He waves the gun around shooting with his eyes closed, spluttering and cursing. One cannot help but feel sympathy for Vanya, a sense of protection towards him. Finally as the play ends he sits with Sonya working on the Estate's accounts, looking like an autistic child lost in self-absorption. The house feels empty, the guests are gone, and there is no one to communicate with.

    Sonya, played by Emily Watson, is kind, warm and sympathetic. Her jealousy of Yelena lies hidden like a venomous snake, she hardly seems aware of it herself. Emily Watson is far from plain, yet with her hair in a tight bun and her drab practical clothes she does manage not to impress. However, one senses the reason why Mikhail is not able to return her love is because of her suppressed emotions. She lacks the freedom and confidence of Yelena, and is therefore unable to compete for Mikhail’s attention.

    Mark Strong’s portrayal of Mikhail Astrov is one of strength and vitality. Just as he plants new trees in order to renew the environment and return life to the region, so initially he brings life and energy to the household. However even he is being depleted by the constant demands being made upon him. When his attempts to persuade Yelena to leave her sick husband fail, you know that his strength too has been sapped.

    All the cast perform well, Cherry Morris as the old nurse smiles and dotes on everyone and yet is brazenly indifferent to the chaos that happens around her. Selina Cadell as Marya, Vanya’s mother, gives a stern performance and delights in her barbed tongue.

    The set is a simple barren room with nothing in the way of furniture apart from a simple long narrow wooden table with accompanying wooden chairs, a piano and threadbare carpets. There is pampas grass around the top of the set to give a hint of the countryside, but no sound of birds, no windows to announce the arrival of dawn or sunset. Everything is bleak and desolate. I do have one complaint about the set. It seems the set designer Anthony Ward never bothered to view the stage from the side seats in the circle, if he had he would have known that the pampas grass obstructs the view of the stage. These seats should really be sold as restricted view.

    Chekhov can be a difficult playwright for new theatregoers. The slow meandering pace of his stories, the way he focuses on the ordinariness of life and examines in-depth the crisis of emotional entanglement, entanglements that grow to such critical proportions only because of the barrenness of the environment his characters inhabit, demands a great deal of attention. However, this is attention well rewarded. The second act where Simon Russell Beale explodes in indignation is well worth the wait.

    A must see for Chekhov fans.

    (Alan Bird)

    Next review by Richard Mallette

    Sep 02

    It’s difficult to think of a more claustrophobic play than Uncle Vanya or a more suitably enclosed space to mount it in than the Donmar Warehouse. The narrow table ranging nearly the length of the stage, the worn Turkish rugs covering the floor, the windowless, drab walls: Anthony Ward’s spare design does little to relieve the confinement that the summer house aptly imposes on the inmates of Chekhov’s ironically subtitled Scenes from Country Life. Nothing about director Sam Mendes’s production suggests freedom, either from the past weighing so heavily on these characters or the future looming so grimly. When late in the play Vanya himself dreads the pointless years stretching out before his death, he voices the terrifying apprehension that holds most of the characters in its grip. Although we’re told repeatedly in that final scene that most of the characters “are gone” from the summer house, they in fact remain spiritually behind, as trapped as Sonya and Vanya in the play’s last sad moments, as the light grows ever dimmer and the walls of the shabby country house seem to close in.

    This extraordinary production features consistently skilled ensemble acting, but as ever Simon Russell Beale, by dint of sheer indefinable talent, dominates the stage. His Vanya conveys intense self-contempt even when he lashes out at his enemies, registering in his famous voice and expressive face depths of rage and self-disgust simultaneously. Russell Beale cuts a particularly pathetic figure as he grovels on his knees before Helen McCrory’s Yelena, herself so cool , so perfectly judged in her cowardly and ambivalent refusals of love. This Vanya is well-matched by Mark Strong’s Dr Astrov, Yelena’s other suitor, nowhere more so than in that final scene. Both male characters are fuelled by vodka, Astrov to icy self-seclusion, Vanya to exhibitionist self-loathing.

    Both men, however, are no more desperate than the women around them. Emily Watson has a tough time making convincing Sonya’s protestations that she is unlovely (although Brian Friel’s deftly colloquial translation plays down Chekhov’s insistence on Sonya’s plainness). But Watson has done a remarkable job of overcoming her own beauty to convince us of a Sonya whose fragility and hopeless yearning for love are revealed long before her plaintive final speech promising that she and Vanya will somehow endure their long succession of days and endless evenings. Because both Sonya and Yelena are played by attractive young women, we’re aware of a physical parity that makes Astrov’s rejection of Sonya, and his senseless pursuit of the married Yelena, all the more arbitrary-seeming and deluded. Like Astrov, all the major characters exhibit a wilful desire to make themselves disconsolate by refusing love even when it is offered directly, when happiness seems well within their grasp. David Bradley’s Serebryakov seems not merely decayed, as Chekhov insists, but untouchable, both physically and morally, as cold-blooded and unsavoury as Astrov. Both of the older women characters, Selina Caldell’s unresponsive mother and Cherry Morris’s nanny, remain aloof from all around them, despite ample evidence of misery and need. The actors work in remarkable consonance to reveal remarkable aloneness.

    This is an acutely intimate production, both visually and aurally, a poignant irony in a world whose characters seem so pained and isolated. Mendes has undertaken a feat few directors would have the courage to perform: he slows the action and downplays the humour. It’s exactly the right judgement. The world of this play is regressive, its inhabitants emotionally stunted. The outside world is not allowed to penetrate this airtight environment, and so the characters are confined to a hideous present with little to anticipate besides and old age of solitary ill health. The director accordingly has his actors speak slowly, pause frequently, move deliberately. We’ve been detained in a domain whose lack of purpose, whose sheer monotony and disconnection are as protracted as its undifferentiated summer nights and afternoons, when mealtimes are reversed almost unnaturally, where sleep is withheld, where love cannot be expressed, where all relationships are dislocated and anticlimactic. Mendes has decided that the actors need to communicate the stifling qualities of the characters’ lives by keeping voices pitched to a minimum and by decelerating movements. These interpretative decisions are greatly enhanced by the physical restrictions of the Donmar. The result is a meditative, deliberate, and intensely sorrowful interpretation. Yet it’s far from monotonous or attenuated. The contemplative pace heightens the outbursts: the passion of Vanya, the frustration of the woman characters, the futility all the characters feel in their own ways. Its originality and clarity of conception make this production well worthy of the Donmar’s tenth-year season.

    Richard Mallette
    Email : mallette@hermes.lfc.edu

    What other critics had to say.....

    ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, " His [Simon Russell Beale] Vanya has warmth, pathos, humour, vulnerability, practical good sense, sweetness. When he loses control and runs amok with a gun, it wrings the heart." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Mendes has yet another triumph on his hands." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It’s finely cast and acted." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says,"Sam Mendes's revival, with its mixture of visual clarity and emotional charity, unquestionably belongs in the premier league." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This is Chekhov, viewed through an erotic, dark filter. It's a genuine revelation."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    Financial Times
    The Times
    The Guardian

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