Sunday, February 10, 2013

Theater Review: Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ at London’s Vaudeville Theatre

Stumbling blindly around in unfamiliar surroundings and penetrating cold two weeks ago, I found myself at last in front of London’s major half-price booth, in Leicester Square. There was only one other person in front of me at the booth. I couldn’t have been more delighted by this great contrast with New York’s Duffy Square, where the lines have been known to snake around the plaza.

Then I looked at what was up on the half-price board. Just like New York, the overwhelming majority of the shows were musicals: Billy Elliott, Mamma Mia, Top Hat, Jersey Boys. (Heck, I could have told them, I’m from Jersey.)

Why see fare I could find back home? I decided to try something more high-toned. Quartermaine’s Terms? I asked. This was, admittedly, a shot in the dark. The revival of this 1980’s comedy-drama by Simon Gray had only opened the night before, and comedian Rowan Atkinson was back in the West End for the first time in a quarter century.

No luck.

“Richard lll?? Twelfth Night?” I wasn’t crazy about the possibility of long running times for these two plays by the Bard, but the productions had received excellent reviews, with Mark Rylance particularly receiving good notices in his New York appearances.

Nope, both were sold out.

Uncle Vanya?”

“We have the last seat left.”

By the end of the night, I would count myself very fortunate indeed to have gotten a ticket to the show, for it turned out to be the last weekend for the production—which, by the way, turned out to be awfully good. I didn’t mind in the least that I’d seen a Chekhov homage from Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, only recently. (See my review here.) More than a century after his death, nobody has come along to mix comedy and heartbreak as expertly as Anton Chekhov.

The playbill (which, unlike Broadway shows, costs theatergoers extra), explained that this was the third Vaudeville Theatre on this site. Maybe so, but it seemed built in a very old style. There was practically no leg room, for instance. (I am only of average size for a male, but my knees seemed ready to go halfway through the aisle in front of me.)

If the venue harked back to the old, the production onstage involved the old and the new.  The set design was tasteful, and the costumes likewise. Yet they buttressed a translation by Christopher Hampton that dispensed with the more flowery versions favored by earlier Chekhov productions.

That spikiness seemed extremely well-served by Ken Stott as Vanya. The last time I had seen this particular translation done was in the 2000 Roundabout Theatre production with Derek Jacobi in the title role. That marvelous actor’s mellifluous voice worked fantastically well in the more dramatic moments of the play, but less so in the player’s more sarcastic moments. On the other hand, Stott, a famous television actor in the U.K., has a Scottish brrrrr that effectively set him apart from the other actors onstage, with traditional stage-trained English accents. This only underscored his character’s increasing isolation, as Vanya—more and more frustrated over having committed the best years of his life to managing the estate of a brother-in-law he’s come to despise—uses his tongue like a cutting device, as likely to be turned against his own aspirations and illusions as against others’ pretentiousness and idealism. His rage and self-loathing know no bounds, as likely to hurt innocent bystanders as the subject of his scorn.

As Serebrykov, Vanya’s brother-in-law and object of scorn, Paul Freeman, with his white moustache and goatee, looks like the character actor from the 1930s and 1940s, Monty Woolley. He masterfully mined the undeniable core of his character—a pompous, self-centered academic—without losing sight of the fear of aging and death that make him pathetic.

I have seen several Yelenas over the years—Julianne Moore, Laura Linney, and best of all, in the Laurence Olivier TV version, the wondrous Rosemary Harris—but few have endowed this indolent beauty with such gravity and unrest as Anna Friel. (During the show’s run, the London tabs gave her as little rest as the male characters in the play, gossiping over whom she was dining with, staking out the stage door to see the outfit in which she would emerge after her performance, and scrutinizing pictures of her with her husband for signs of Yelena-like quiet desperation.)

Samuel West made Astrov, the friend and doctor continually called to this country estate, an especially compelling figure. Seldom has this character—perhaps closest in spirit to the physician-playwright—come into such focus as one with such personal promise and peril. Unfurling a set of meticulously drawn maps for Yelena, he expounds with evangelical fervor the harm being done to the countryside by human environmental depredation, in words eerily prophetic about climate change. But Yelena’s presence knocks him off his axis, to the point where he starts to resemble his somewhat older middle-aged friend Vanya. (Their drinking bouts and wasted intelligence made me wonder if Russia had its own version of Jake Barnes and his Lost Generation friends in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.)

Laura Carmichael has made more than a few friends on this side of the Atlantic as the beloved Lady Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey, and her role here as Vanya’s niece Sonia—plain, shy, helplessly in love with the oblivious Astrov—seemed perfectly in synch with that performance. She struck one (not insignificant) false note at the performance I caught—the beginning of Sonia’s magnificent closing speech—but otherwise she brought to the part all of the carefully suppressed heartbreak called for.

Lindsay Posner directed with a sure sense of pacing, allowing each member of his accomplished cast at least a moment to shine. This is a production that the Roundabout Theatre Co. would be well advised to import to the United States, if it can. Roundabout has sometimes done worse, and it is hard to see how it could do better (even if it did have another version at the turn of the millennium.)

No comments: