Before Uncle Vanya gets its press write-ups following tonight’s press night, it’s time to get my own impressions of the play down. I watched UV on the 14th of January, at its first preview. A glorified dress rehearsal, more or less, playing the play for the first time in front of a paying audience. That does not mean that a performance is worse than further on into the run, but it sure means that not everything I noticed on the first night will still be part of the performance weeks into the run. In any case, as a usual disclaimer I’d like to preface my observations by saying that they are based on my quickly written notes on the day after watching the play.
When it comes to theatre, I generally prefer contemporary drama: Rather than watch the theatrical imaginings of (usually) white, male, privileged playwrights of the past, I enjoy being challenged by modern playwrights from *all* backgrounds, no matter whether comedy or tragedy. Traditional modern dramatists like Chekhov sure do fill the seats – but in the past I have often found his plays too far removed from *my own* reality of life to fully engage with the characters. That may say more about my (then) lack of experience with theatre or my inability to abstract what I saw on stage. Having read Chekhov’s text only on the morning of the performance, I was unsure whether I would garner much enthusiasm for the play. To me it felt static, somewhat unresolved, and marked by general frustration. And so it was with a certain resentment that I entered the Harold Pinter Theatre on January 14th for the first preview of Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Let me qualify the “resentment”, though: It was coupled with high expectations for what McPherson had done with the original, not least because the actors (Ciaran Hinds; Richard Armitage) had hinted in interviews released prior to the previews that the Irish playwright had significantly updated the play.
Setting the stage
The scene as it was unveiled beyond the rising curtain, immediately put my mind at ease. Not only was Richard Armitage (Astrov) right there at the front of the stage (launching into his dialogue with Nana, played by Anna Calder Marshall, but a gorgeous stage set by Rae Smith revealed itself: A true feast for the eyes, the stage consists of the large salon in the country estate the play is set in. A wall of floor to ceiling windows marks the edge of the stage on the left, while the remaining two walls are furnished with a shrine, massive bookcase, and fireplace. A lacklustre chandelier dominates the room from above. Through the window the outdoors are visible – huge, leafy trees whose branches are touching the “house”, even stretching into the indoor space. The decor is suitably faded grandeur – befitting a country estate that has seen better days – yet lavish in terms of stage design. It has been beautifully put together, with many details. That way, it sets a wonderful atmosphere in which the play takes place, providing an opulent backdrop to the action, yet aiding individual scenes as a prop in its own right. Without saying much, the characters need only pose and would provide an eloquent visual interpretation of the play’s theme: frustration. But more about that later.
As the curtain rises, Astrov is the first person visible, together with Nana. Getting the review for “people who only come and see their favourite actor do something” out of the way: Astrov’s look is really attractive. Armitage’s hair has been shortened a bit, looks slightly less full, and has a shorter back, sides and front. But that makes him look more like a young Chekhov – incidentally also a trained physician! However, a resistant lock of hair was right there on Astrov’s forehead in the beginning, until Nana musses up his hair in a gesture of fondness and familiarity during their short chat about Astrov’s change over the last decade that establishes the doctor’s frustration with his life. The missing trousers have been restored. Astrov wears grey trousers and a vest, an open shirt underneath. No collar, no tie. His jacket is charcoal. The appearance is slightly dishevelled. He also has boots on, not rough, but not new looking, either. Over the course of the play Astrov often is the observer and stands at the side of the stage with his hands in his pockets – very casually attractive.
Dad bod, my arse *haha*
The plot unfolds over five acts: The country estate looked after by the eponymous Vanya and his niece Sonya, has been thrown into disarray by the arrival of the estate owner, the elderly Professor Serebryakov (Vanya’s widowed brother-in-law and father of Sonya) and his much younger second wife, Yelena. The rural estate used to provide the income to support the Serebryakovs’ urban lifestyle. The professor’s unconventional rhythm – working at night and sleeping all day – is significantly disrupting the routine of the household. Equally disruptive is Yelena’s presence. Both Vanya and his friend, local doctor Astrov, find themselves passionately in love with her. Both men are frustrated with their respective lives – as the unrecognised caretaker of the estate and a provincial doctor who can only ever cure the symptoms but never treat the source. Meanwhile, Vanya’s niece Sonya has been unhappily in love with the ignorant doctor. Yelena attempts to satisfy everyone, playing cupid for Sonya, playing the dutiful wife for her husband, and rejecting the advances of Vanya and Astrov. The squabbles and recriminations come to a head when the professor announces his intention to sell the estate in order to continue his urban lifestyle. The couple eventually departs the estate, Doctor Astrov leaves never to return, and Vanya and Sonya resign themselves back to the fruitless boredom of looking after the failing estate.
A Play of Frustration
To me, Uncle Vanya is a play of “frustration”. All characters are frustrated by an elementary part of their lives. Vanya is in love with Yelena and later by the realisation that he has given away his life and youth to the estate without ever receiving back the recognition he deserved. The professor is frustrated by the lack of professional recognition and his age, particularly in relation with his young wife. Yelena is frustrated with the life as the much younger wife of an older man. Sonya is frustrated by Astrov who is not reciprocating her feelings. Astrov is frustrated with his profession as a doctor, who can only ever treat the symptoms but never cure the actual cause of the diseases. All this would make the play a gloomy affair, were it not for the character of the country doctor. Within the parameters of frustration and stagnation in the play where the majority of characters are bound together by their dependence on the property, there is only the doctor who is (theoretically) a free agent who *could* make changes. He is actually torn between his frustrated professional life, and his private environmental activism. His interest in reforestation provides the only glimmer of hope in the play. However, Astrov gets a few minus points from me because he is wasting his energy on lamenting in despair instead of actively changing what he could. If medicine is not his calling (anymore), why does he not give it up and go into conservation?
Armitage is very convincing as the despairing doctor. He plays Astrov energetically and imbues him with the “difference” and “originality” that Yelena describes him with. Astrov is passionate and lively – even in his despair over his guilty feelings considering the death of one of his patients – which Armitage translates into fast speaking, often quite high in tone, and some dramatic hand-in-hear gestures (sometimes a little bit too dramatic for my taste, but maybe that was still at the trying stage). Hooray for the Chekhov mane! In a major departure from earlier pronouncements, Armitage both sings and dances on the stage, much to this fan’s delight. He has a short verse to sing in the night time scene where he, Vanya and Telegin are drunkenly revelling about. The singing is part of the original play – not sure whether McPherson has changed the text, though. The dancing occurs later with Yelena.
Toby Jones as Vanya is wonderfully quirky and dynamic. I found him compelling in this role, jumping effortlessly between the ruthlessly passionate would-be lover of Yelena and the desperately frustrated estate manager who sees his life’s work vanishing without reward. This being the first preview, he was occasionally overly enthusiastic and speaking over the replies of his scene partner, but that did not even distract from his performance. He came across as an impatient and intense Vanya who has finally understood he has to fight for his rewards. (In general, there were a few instances where the cast seemed to genuinely broke into giggles – but I was glad to see them have such fun, and I simultaneously marvelled at how they always managed to make the lapses look like part of the script.)
The Female Characters
I had hoped to find myself represented by Sonya – for obvious reasons. And while the unrequited love scenario with the good doctor is eerily close to the bone – no further explanation necessary – I found it hard to sympathise with Sonya in the end. Her sadness over her lack of beauty, her dedication to her work and her level-headedness had me nod in empathy, and I liked her for that. But despite her sensible thinking, she only ever stays within the boundaries prescribed to her by others. Besides attempting to smooth over and patch up the rifts in her family, she does not fight for her own happiness – neither in terms of her livelihood (the estate formally belonging to her, as inherited from her late mother), nor in terms of her feelings for the doctor. She accepts her fate – with much stoicism and capacity for suffering, as verbalised in her final soliloquy that closes the play. Aimee Lou Wood played Sonya a little bit too wide-eyed and naive for my taste.
Similarly, I could also not quite identify with Yelena, although she appears more active, approaching Sonya to patch up their rift, offering to find out whether Astrov loves Sonya, forcefully rebuking Vanya and Astrov. Her monologue is beautifully melancholy – but annoyingly representative of a society that restricts women. (No criticism of Chekhov – that is the realism he was such a fan of. But it is frustrating for me as a female viewer, because beside the compassion for the beautiful woman in the gilded cage, there is no uplifting catharsis to take from this historical fact.) So, similarly trapped within family relations and a society that has not yet given women equal rights, Yelena’s attempts at doing right by everybody, are futile. Rosalind Eleazar does the best she can with that role, and I liked her forceful interpretation of the character. She acted with spunk and drama, even though Yelena is very unflatteringly described as lazy and lethargic. Kudos to her for giving Yelena an edge because the treatment of women in the play had me otherwise frustrated, full stop. This is a point that I wished McPherson might have righted, but his adaptation, together with Rickson’s direction, appear to continue to hold the female characters “in bondage”: Level-headed Sonya is (explicitly) defined by her plainness and lack of beauty, and the beautiful Yelena has to bear men overstepping all marks and touching/hugging/kissing her against her wishes. (Yep, even the fact that one of the kissers is Richard Armitage, only makes this scene marginally better. As much as I enjoy seeing him smooch a passionate kiss on his co-star, I find it hard to observe it in the context of abuse and with my POV as a woman living in the times of #MeToo.)
Which brings me back to Astrov – as dreamy as the tree-hugging doctor may appear in some scenes of the play, his treatment of women is questionable. He is dismissive of them at the beginning – prejudiced when it comes to Yelena (lazy upper-class bitch) and ignorant in relation to Sonya (whose feelings he has not noticed at all). What a change when he suddenly seems to fall under the spell of Yelena – but the attraction is all superficial as he continues to accuse her of being a parasitic, boring, lethargic woman of luxury. Even as Astrov implores Yelena to meet with him, he still describes her thus. And the way he forces himself on her – capturing her in his arms against her will – is definitely not 21st century compatible. Once again, I understand that a play has to be interpreted in the context of the time it was written. Or does it, when it is a modern adaptation?
However, overall I enjoyed the adaptation by McPherson and felt that the play in McPherson’s iteration was much more comedic than the original. In fact, after reading the Chekhov script only the morning of the performance, I was completely taken by surprise when the play started and there was laughter from the audience during the dialogue between Astrov and Nana. I had not expected that at all. In fact I expected a drama, contained in one room and limited to verbal exchanges, but the actors played the piece for laughs when they could and made it quite muscular. There were plenty of quips and jokes in the play – and the acting (particularly Jones and Armitage) was definitely aimed at making the audience laugh – Astrov jumping in the rain and pulling faces behind the window, Astrov blowing raspberries in response to Vanya, Astrov and Vanya chasing each other around a table and wrestling like school boys for a vial of morphine that Vanya had stolen. Armitage surprised me with his comedic talent – he was as good with the comedy as he traditionally has been with the smoulder, and it left me wanting more. The well-timed comedy worked wonders for the play but a lot of that may actually have been experimental – this was the first preview, I am sure that the direction was not fully composed as yet – and it could easily be that the actors reacted to the jolly audience who so readily jumped into laughter as soon as the curtain went up. But the adaptation really struck me as very Irish: It had a very solid foundation of delight in the absurdity of a situation, of dealing with tragedy through absurd, overstated humour. It wasn’t black humour as such, but a very Irish irreverence that makes light of unsurmountable circumstances. It struck me pretty early on in the play that McPherson could’ve gone a step further and set the action of the play in an Irish country house, at a similar time, as landlord absenteeism was a historically a major problem in Ireland, too. It would have made the unexpected (yet welcome) humour a little more cohesive for me.
There are plenty of other interesting aspects in this play. The recurring alcoholism in UV will no doubt resonate with many viewers, and Astrov’s environmentalism in the context of the deforestation of Russia in the 19th century is definitely a hook that anchors a 120 year old play in the present day. Women’s equality is a theme that actually gets verbalised in the play (the plot’s treatment of the women notwithstanding) through Vanya’s mother Maria who reads treatises about women’s suffrage. And in the background of UV is the actual historical situation in the Russian Empire where serfdom may have been abolished but the life of the rural poor is so dire that they are effectively still bound to landlord and land. The personal conflict, however, is what drives UV, and the pursuit of inheritance and property, recognition and rights, and lastly of love, is universal and will resonate with anyone who watches UV. The Ian Rickson production will draw you in with its stunning set design, its fast-paced, dynamic direction and the fresh adaptation by McPherson. The acting is delightful and energetic with leads and supporting actors well in command of their respective characters. While the play itself, and particularly the end, is far from uplifting, the humour of the piece is refreshing and attractive and could easily make this play one of the highlights of the season. I can’t wait to watch this play again and see what has changed since its first performance.
For tonight’s press night – break a leg to all cast and crew of Uncle Vanya!
PS: Fangirl Bonus [contains massive spoiler]
As a bonus to the regular review above, here are a couple of slightly more pithy thoughts: The stand-out scene from a fangirl pov is the drunken scene in the middle of the play. Astrov and Vanya have been drinking while a thunderstorm rages outside. Without further context from me, this is what happens: Astrov literally rips his shirt off, whoops and runs outside into the rain to holler and jump. From where I was sitting (Dress Circle A1) I had a great view of the wall of windows left stage and I could actually see Armitage in between the trees outside, running, turning, jumping. He gets drenched in the rain (there is real water running down the windows), and before he comes back inside, he puts his face against the window, grimaces, and then finally pushes the door open again and enters. He then grabs a towel and covers himself with it, so all you are left to see is his belly button.
However, from up there, in the Dress Circle, we had a pretty good view of him sans shirt, and here’s the “review” you are most eagerly awaiting: Dad bod, yes – but in the most flattering and attractive of terms! He doesn’t look skinny but is not overly pumped up either. He is by no means chubby, but he sports a nice, soft belly. Essentially, he looks like the man he is playing – a doctor (who does not do physical work) and in his spare time a forester (who plants and culls trees, i.e. who does have some muscle) – perfect mixture, if you ask me. And sorry, Richard, but I really had to laugh when this scene went down – didn’t you say that you weren’t ripping your shirt off anymore? No complaints here, I just think that it is really amusing how you just can’t seem to get away from roles where partial nudity is required. Totty? Well, I think that is something that exists more in your head than in your audience’s. Because Astrov as a character is dreamy in parts, but also dislikable in others, and that doesn’t *quite* make totty material.
In conclusion, I found it wonderfully refreshing to see Richard act in a surprisingly humorous role and had the impression that he relished the opportunity “to flex his funny bones”. He played Astrov with gusto – and there was a genuinely believable, almost child-like joy palpable in the scenes where he danced in the rain, held his speech from top of the chair, and later when chasing Vanya to retrieve the stolen morphine. It is simply uplifting to observe that kind of energy on stage, and I found it invigorated my enthusiasm as a fan. Richard truly has a knack for choosing roles that are different to what he has done before, and if this is a first foray into more lighthearted roles, I would be very happy.