Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. I expect that was true for a number of people. It’s a superb introduction to Shakespeare because it’s very accessible, it’s got loads of everyday phrases that it’s fun to recognise, it helps you with your Latin History; and it’s got some famous characters, and a ghost, and a soothsayer, and a baying mob, and lots and lots of deaths. What more could a fifteen-year-old schoolboy want?
Much to my own irritation, I’ve had to wait all these years to see it on stage. For years it seemed like no one would touch it with an SPQR standard, and now suddenly everyone’s doing it. The RSC are staging it this summer; I’ve already got tickets to see the new version at the new Bridge Theatre in London next February, and now it’s popped up at one of my favourite theatres, the Sheffield Crucible. So I was really keen to see this new production.
I’m sure you know the story; in brief, Julius Caesar is in charge of Rome, a noble man but a bighead, who likes nothing more than to strut his stuff and let the power go to his head. Around him are several politicians whom he believes are all loyal, but insurrection is brewing. Cassius (who has a lean and hungry look) is assembling allies to do away with Caesar For The Good Of Rome and nothing whatever to do with their own personal fortune, of course. Many sign up, but the big name they want is Brutus, and Brutus is an honourable man. Nevertheless, Cassius convinces him to join the merry band of murderers and assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March (nasty). But no one has really taken into account Caesar’s pal Mark Anthony, and how he will react to the dirty deed… which is with mob-altering oratory.
In these days of political intrigue, elections, referendums, Brexit, and what have you, this play seems more relevant than ever. In the UK, with so many of the political parties now led by women and with women in some of our highest governmental positions, it seems a good idea for some of Caesar’s male associates to be played by women: Casca, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Popilius, as well as one of the post-Caesar triumvirate, Octavius Caesar. And, of course, Cassius, who thinks too much. These gender changes not only add an additional level of sexual intrigue (just how friendly are Cassius and Brutus?) but they also really help to modernise the story, and, coupled with Ben Stones’ modern staging, this is very much a Julius Caesar for the 21st century.
When you enter the Crucible auditorium, for a split second you think you’ve come at the wrong time and they’ve laid the stage out for the snooker championships. But no, that’s not a snooker table, but a fine old board table, suitable for grand dining, or devious conspiracy. And the knives laid out upon it are more for cutting a Consul than slicing a steak. This adds an instant inevitability to the whole thing. As soon as you see Cassius and her friends observing Caesar’s showbizzy entrance with distaste, you know his number’s up. The other knock-out design feature is how the front row of the theatre has been converted into UN-style governmental seating, with a phone, a mic, a lamp, a writing pad and a plush chair at every station. This then perfectly represents the Senate House when Caesar deigns to call and pontificate; and just as Caesar thinks he’s as constant as the northern star, he’s dead for a ducat (wrong play, sorry). The sight of all the senators dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood is gruesomely effective, because today we only think of that phrase being figurative, not literal. Other visual highlights include Mark Anthony grabbing the dead Caesar from out of his coffin and the mob tearing the meek and mild Cinna the Poet to death. Never was anyone more in the wrong place at the wrong time.
New Artistic Director of the Crucible, Robert Hastie has really set the bar high with this, his first Sheffield production. The staging is stirring and on a grand scale, using parts of the Crucible that you never knew existed, like the balcony above the stage, or the removed Row E from the seats. The splendid vision for the play deserves some excellent performances and fortunately, this is what it gets. Jonathan Hyde’s Caesar is proud and vain (but not excessively so), mature and a little world-weary; I particularly enjoyed his scene with Calpurnia when she was trying to prevent him from attending the Senate and so at first he declines the invitation to go and get murdered but when he is convinced to do so by Cinna he mockingly turns on Calpurnia for fussing so much. It was like a little snapshot into a private domestic tiff. But she was right. Mr Hyde also turns in a very chilling performance as the ghost.
The splendid Samuel West is a very thoughtful and dignified Brutus, quietly listening and weighing up all the evidence; not vacillating as I am sure the role might sometimes be played. Once he has decided to join with the conspirators he is as gung-ho about the project as anyone, but he still retains his innate honourable status. Even more gripping, Zoe Waites makes a fantastic Cassius; edgy, pushy, manipulative; with an eye for the main chance and not afraid to back track when she’s in trouble. She has a terrific stage presence and a voice that rings out in the darkest depths of the rear stalls. And Eliot Cowan is a magnificent Mark Antony, switching from lager lout in his first scenes with Caesar, through the great oratory scene where he brings the mob on his side by manipulating their emotions as the King of Rhetoric, to his triumvirate appearance where he’s more militant than Labour in the early 80s. All the other roles are played powerfully and intelligently – there’s not a weak spot anywhere. Members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre act as the mob and a fantastic job they do of it.
I really loved this production – it was everything I hoped it would be; relevant, exciting, memorable, and brought superbly up to date with its staging and casting. Congratulations to everyone involved!
A last minute change of plan meant that I was able to make a sneaky booking for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to see this touring production of Present Laughter, which I’d had my eye on for a few months but couldn’t see how to schedule it in. I’m extremely glad we did, because it’s an elegant, classy, sophisticated and intelligent production of a play that neither of us had seen before. I read a number of Coward’s plays when I was about 15 years old, and this was one of them; and I remember at the time that it really didn’t jump off the page for me. I could see how it was an account of the trials and tribulations that beset light-comedy-actor Garry Essendine, but, unlike all the other Coward plays I read at the time, I found it heavy-going. So I was very interested to see how a decent production would make it come to life.
I don’t think there was ever any pretence, since the play first hit the boards in 1943, that its protagonist Garry Essendine is Noel Coward. He wrote it as a semi-autobiographical frippery purely to give himself a star role. Many of the other characters are based on members of his “set” (makes him sound like a badger), and Essendine’s constant inclination to overact or underempathise reflects Coward’s own intolerance and impatience with his celebrity status, which you sense drove him mad with its interminable impingement on his freedom but without which he would have been bereft.
In brief, over the course of a few days, the actor is at the centre of a (largely self-induced) whirlwind of activity that includes two women throwing themselves at him, coping with the relationship indiscretions of his closest friends, beating off the advances of a young playwright hopelessly obsessed with him, and facing the no-nonsense discipline of his secretary and his ex-wife, all whilst he’s preparing to take a company of actors on a tour of Africa. At times it’s quite gentle comedy, at others almost Feydeau-esque in its farcical deceptions.
All the essential requirements of an impeccable Coward production are here. Simon Higlett’s graceful set comfortably accommodates all the exit and entry points needed for the farcical elements, whilst reflecting Essendine’s immaculate taste in all the furnishings and accoutrements of fine living. The costumes are beautiful; indeed, I rather hankered after the smart dressing gown that Liz bought Essendine in Paris. A proper piano; very comme il faut. The spiral staircase direct to Essendine’s boudoir adds a touch of extravagance. When can we move in?
Stephen Unwin directs his hugely enjoyable cast at a smart pace, encouraging everyone to get meaningful characterisation out of even the minor parts, thus providing a superb backbone to support the main characters. For example, Martin Hancock as Fred, the valet, is brilliant at bringing out all his egalitarian cheeriness, naturally offering his rightyo’s and be good’s to everyone in his orbit, no matter their estate. Sally Tatum brings the house down with her self-contortions and Scandinavian impishness as the psychic housekeeper Miss Erikson, as does Patrick Walshe McBride with his slightly unhinged, slightly menacing interpretation of the appalling Roland Maule; two roles that could so easily descend into mere caricature, but here performed with perfect judgment to present real people out of these nightmare creations. Toby Longworth’s Henry is a delightfully blustering idiot who loses his cool magnificently when he thinks Essendine is having an affair with his wife; Jason Morell is hilarious with his over-reactions to… well, to anything; and Elizabeth Holland brings some splendid dignity to her don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington moment.
At the heart of the production is an immaculate performance by Samuel West as Garry Essendine. As with some of the smaller roles, it could be easy to go over-the-top and caricaturise Essendine as a merely waspish spoilt brat and arch manipulator. But Mr West digs deeper into the character and reveals someone with whom you can actually have a lot of sympathy; he presents Essendine’s weaknesses with a hint of affection, so that, although he certainly isn’t more sinned against than sinning, the dividing line between the two isn’t quite so clear as you might think it is. Essendine’s characteristic switching between (in)sincerity and acting is intelligently but mischievously handled by Mr West so that it’s hardly surprising that Daphne hilariously misinterprets his intentions; an excellent performance.
Daisy Boulton’s Daphne is wide-eyed and toe-curlingly in love with Garry and is wonderfully easy fodder to his patter and pretence. Rebecca Johnson is first rate as his wife/ex-wife (you choose) Liz, with a fine blend of hard-nosed toughness to keep Garry out of trouble and an indulgent forgiveness of his misconduct. Zoe Boyle gives a great performance as the bed-hopping Joanna, allowing the mask of steely self-assurance to drop perfectly when she’s cornered; and there’s a wonderful performance by Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s much put-upon secretary Monica, protecting him from the worst excesses of his own behaviour with all the warmth and understanding of a senior Matron who’s seen it all and didn’t like much of what she saw.
Impeccably performed throughout, the play still has insightful observations to make about the nature of celebrity, loyalty and pretence versus reality. It’s not Coward at his most searing, but it still has great entertainment value and we both really enjoyed it! This Theatre Royal Bath production continues to tour to Cambridge, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 20th August. Go see it!
One of the subjects that could really get the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s passion aroused was the Suffragette movement. She was proud that universal suffrage was introduced in the UK during her lifetime – she was 7 years old in 1928, when women finally received the same voting rights as men – and she would love to tell tales of knowing of women who had chained themselves to railings, and had huge admiration for Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby. She would have been riveted by the film Suffragette, as it starkly shows the struggles of those women to get their voices heard by committing acts of civil disobedience.
Part fact, part fiction, it follows the life of Maud Watts, married with one son, working hard, long hours in a laundry sweatshop, with a bullying, advantage-taking boss, and who almost accidentally gets caught up in the suffragette movement as she works alongside some of the more active members. As she starts attending meetings, she offers to accompany her colleague Violet Miller to the House of Commons, who was to address a committee of MPs, including the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George. But circumstances dictate that it is Maud who must give her own account of why women should get the vote – and when cabinet nevertheless decides against extending the vote, her sense of resentment increases and she becomes much more personally involved. Maud, Violet, the pharmacist Edith Ellyn, all fictional characters, as well as the real life Emily Davison, all exert what influence they can to change the law, resulting in trials, imprisonment, verbal and physical abuse from both inside and outside the penal institutions, hunger strikes, and forced feeding. Maud additionally has her private life torn apart by her actions, and the film culminates in Emily Davison’s ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a very strong and moving film; it’s also very dark, both literally and metaphorically. There are some scenes of brutality against the women which make difficult viewing, but as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, they are fully relevant to the film, and today’s audience shouldn’t be blind to the physical attacks the suffragettes incurred. Personally, I was very surprised at the level of antipathy and hostility expressed towards the suffragettes by the average man (and plenty of average women) on the street. You wouldn’t have thought that everyone was against them – although that’s certainly how it seems in this film. Considering that after Emily Davison’s death they announced that thousands would be lining the streets for her funeral procession, you might have expect someone to have said to Sonny Watts, “she’s alright, your wife” and not just “your wife’s a disgrace”. But then, as once again the wise Mrs C pointed out, it sometimes takes something really visible and tangible to change public opinion, like the picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the shore seemed to wake people up to the current refugee crisis, even though he was just one of thousands. So no doubt the Derby tragedy alerted many more people to the personal sacrifices women were making.
The film garners some excellent performances all round. Carey Mulligan is brillliant as Maud, growing in self-confidence throughout the film but desperate in her domestic sadness and in her battle to keep in contact with her son. Helena Bonham-Carter – herself the great-granddaughter of Asquith, the Prime Minister during much of the time when the suffragettes were campaigning – is excellent as the hard-working Edith Ellyn, hosting meetings, and fearlessly getting her hands dirty at every opportunity. Anne-Marie Duff plays Violet, a defiantly committed trouble-maker, relishing every opportunity to make a difference. There’s a very enjoyable and rather inspiring brief performance by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, appearing out of nowhere to deliver a stirring public speech and then disappearing back from whence she came. Ben Whishaw is very good as the under-communicative Sonny, Maud’s husband; you can almost see in his controlling eyes the extent to which he will allow his wife to agitate, and the point at which she will have gone too far. There’s a strong, quiet performance by Brendan Gleeson as the Police Inspector Steed, diligent in enforcing the law but with an understated sense of the bigger picture; and a ruthless cameo by Samuel West as the reactionary politician Benedict, harbouring a draconian resentment against equality.
Dramatic, powerful, dark; a very intense film that reminds us of the sacrifices made by others so that we can have the vote today. Interestingly, it is the first film ever to have scenes actually shot in the Houses of Parliament, which emphasises the still relevant importance of what the suffragettes achieved. Next time you can’t be bothered to turn up to the polling station, just remember what Maud went through.
I saw my first Chekhov at the age of fifteen – Three Sisters, directed by Jonathan Miller – and I was hooked. I saw Jonathan Miller in the bar but was too shy to say hello – and to be fair he didn’t look like he’d welcome an approach, as he looked like he was having a thoroughly miserable time. As a result, I asked for the Penguin edition of the Complete Chekhov as part of my sixteenth birthday present, and I read it avidly. I even recall hiding away in the locker room at school during break so that I could get Uncle Vanya finished.
So, the prospect of a full day of Chekhov was perhaps a little bit of a hard sell to Mrs Chrisparkle, although I was keen as mustard. Three plays in one day: 10.30 am, 3 pm, 7.30pm. I think she equated it with the heaviest possible day at the Edinburgh Fringe; the very thought of it made her exhausted. Still, I lured her with the prospect of lunch at the Minerva Brasserie and a gluten-free fry up breakfast at Spires’ on Sunday. She caved in. Less than half an hour into the first play and I could already tell she was loving it – and by the time we came to late night dinner at Cote, twelve hours later, she was adamant that she had been looking forward to it all along. Because I’m delighted to tell you, gentle reader, that these three plays, produced in old fashioned rep style at the Festival Theatre (all three on a Saturday) are a rare treat indeed. We’d seen the Ian McKellen production of The Seagull back in 2008 but couldn’t remember much about it because it was on New Year’s Day, we were frankly knackered, and had our eyes shut for most of the time (as did much of the audience). I’d seen Michael Frayn’s version of Platonov, Wild Honey, at the National in 1985, but hadn’t realised it was the same play. And although I’d read Ivanov all those years ago, neither of us had ever seen it, so this was a perfect opportunity to get up to date and immerse oneself in the output of the Young Chekhov. And the plays, the productions and the performances are without exception absolutely stunning.
By the time The Seagull had reached the stage, Chekhov was 36 years old; and given that he would die just eight years later of tuberculosis, it’s perhaps misleading to consider it the work of the “Young Chekhov”. Nevertheless, it’s still a good halfway point in his career to consider what went before as his earlier attempts and what followed as the more mature writer. The texts have been adapted by David Hare, who insists in his introduction that these are three completely individual plays that deserve to be considered individually and not just looked at as some kind of blur and a mere source for the themes that Chekhov would develop more fully in his later plays. Fair enough. However. When you watch all three on the same day; in the same theatre, with the same set, the same lighting, the same director, and many of the actors appear in two or even all three of the plays, it comes across as one big project – a theatrical vision that encourages the audience to make thematic comparisons. I was struck, for example, how, structurally, each of the three plays started in the same way. First, there would be a conversation between two people on stage, which would shortly be interrupted by another two people, of whom the more senior of the two continues a conversation they were already having offstage, and the two people already on stage join in with their conversation. Similarly, use of the same actor to portray similar characters emphasises how Chekhov frequently employs a “type” in his plays – the impoverished schoolteacher, the doctor, the uncle, the landowner, the merchant, the writer, the frumpy female relative, and, of course, the old retainer. Chuck in some actors and some military men and you have a smorgasbord of Russian characters that Chekhov could mix and match to create village life – a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of Russia in its entirety.
The Seagull is quite frequently performed; Ivanov, less so; Platonov, rarely. So it is a delight to have a chance to see that very early play in this riveting production. There are differences of opinion as to how old Chekhov was when he wrote it; anything between 17 and 20. What is certain is that it was not performed in his lifetime – he wrote it for the rising star Maria Yermolova, who rejected it out of hand – and the manuscript that remained was rambling, unedited, and hugely long. David Hare has done an incredible job in creating a really full and vivid play out of these ashes. Many of the usual Chekhovian themes are there, but what really makes it stand out in comparison with the rest of his work is the comedy element. Ayckbourn has been likened to Chekhov for his observations of family life and his ability to juggle hilarity and tragedy in the same sentence. You’d have to go back over a hundred years to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to find as many laugh out loud moments in a play as you find in the third act of Platonov; and I noticed several instances throughout the entire day when Chekhov gave us a comic twist to a tragic situation and I thought: “that’s Ayckbourn all over”. Platonov himself is a truly Ayckbournian creation – like Norman, in The Norman Conquests, attractive to women beyond all reasonable expectations without going out of his way to pursue them; just being playfully irreverent, primarily taking care of himself at the expense of others, wheedling his way out of awkward situations, loving others but not as much as he loves himself.
There is a lot of comedy in Platonov, some in Ivanov (mainly from the card-playing, food and drink-hunting guests of the Lebedevs), but precious little in The Seagull. At least sixteen years pass between them – Platonov was written circa 1880, Ivanov in 1887, and The Seagull in 1896, so he wasn’t exactly bashing out these full length plays in a frenzy. The level of comedy declines over the years, in the same ways as does his use of soliloquies. Platonov is full of characters proclaiming their confessional monologues alone on stage. However, there are just two such occurrences in both Ivanov and The Seagull, as Chekhov learned more subtle ways of revealing the inner self of his characters.
In all the plays, the characters seem completely affected by the weather – they’re either suffering from the stifling and oppressive heat, or they’re hiding from the damp air in the evening for the sake of their health. Being Russian, they’re martyrs to their alcohol, perhaps the one unifying source of comfort in the three plays and one that inevitably gives rise to some humour. But additionally you really get an understanding of how the ubiquitous vodka is used to bring all parts of society together – it’s just something that everyone understands and appreciates. All the plays deal with the subject of acting, and thus create an argument between artifice and reality, whether it’s by actually having actors as characters (like Arkadina and Nina in The Seagull), or by Nikolai’s taunting of Platonov that he doesn’t actually feel anything and any sentiment he offers is “just acting”; or Ivanov seeing himself as a Hamlet character.
You can see the roots of Chekhov’s theme that “life will always be better elsewhere”, which culminates in the Three Sisters’ desperate need to return to Moscow, with Glagolyev joining his dreadful son in Paris to enjoy life whilst he still can, and with Arkadina escaping back to Moscow to rid herself of irksome family ties. Naturally, the subject of loyalty and adultery are never far from Chekhov’s nib, and whenever there’s a revolver lying around, you just know there’ll be murder or suicide, committed by someone with what we would call today Mental Health issues, driven to distraction by the world around them.
But what of these productions? As I said earlier – they are stunning. Tom Pye’s set has enough individuality to reflect the differences between the plays but also enough unifying features to make it clearly all part of one endeavour. The great central space at the Festival theatre is given over to the garden for outside scenes and living rooms/studies for indoor scenes, with a useful two storey building on one side and a forest clearing on the other. I loved the use of the divider that sprang up from down below to create the back wall of Platonov’s schoolroom or Ivanov’s study; and the additional features that come into their own for each play – the lonely train track in Platonov, the front of stage river bank in Ivanov, the back of stage lake shore in The Seagull, all add some realistic magic to the proceedings. Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting also had many high impact moments, none perhaps as memorable as the silhouette of Ivanov at the back of the stage near the end of the play, providing us with a visual representation of what a loner he was. David Hare’s words bring Chekhov’s originals to superb, natural life – including the use of antisemitism shown by the characters in Ivanov, which still has the power to shock – the audience’s gasps were palpable.
And how about the performances? Equally stunning. A handful of actors appear in just one of the plays, several appear in two, and four absolute stalwarts appear in all three. Each play relies highly on a strong sense of ensemble performance, even though Platonov and Ivanov have eponymous characters at the centre of the action. James McArdle is a brilliant Platonov, quirky, confident, daring, and still essentially a louse – yet you can’t help liking him. You know that old saying that, deep down, women always prefer the bad boys? He’s proof positive of that. And he’s virtually unrecognisable as Doctor Lvov in Ivanov; soberly dressed, clean shaven, decent and moral – the complete opposite of the rather reprehensible schoolteacher. You can’t imagine a smile ever crossing his lips. His Anna Petrovna (in both plays, so Chekhov really must have liked the name) is Nina Sosanya. In Platonov, she’s splendidly gung-ho about not giving a damn about her debts and with a distinct charm that causes men to fall in love with her – a very strong performance of a strong character. In Ivanov, again it’s an opposite type of portrayal – in frail health, but still resolute of spirit and looking for the good in life, until her husband, piqued with cruelty and mental fragility, blurts out her hopeless prognosis.
Joshua James gives two excellent performances – I particularly liked him in Platonov, as the rather useless young doctor Nikolai, constantly teasing and sniping at the world, and especially at Platonov himself. The administering water scene at the end of the play was one of the best comedy-in-tragedy moments I’ve ever seen. As the troubled Konstantin in The Seagull, he is very effective as the young pup trying to assert himself in a household of patronising superiors, and at the end of the play, his neat and deliberate destruction of his papers was very moving (and much more suitable to the character, unlike Chekhov’s original stage directions which say he just throws them under the table). Elsewhere Platonov is studded with top quality performances – Jonathan Coy as the courtly failure Porfiri, and Mark Donald, totally vile as his spoilt, cruel son Kiril – a performance more memorable than you might have thought the role normally receives. There’s a wonderfully bright and hopeful Sergei played by Pip Carter, who becomes devastated when he discovers the truth about Platonov; he’s equally good in The Seagull as Medvedenko, where he brings out all the character’s pathetic, kick-me-I’m-a-puppy qualities.
Taking a couple of the smaller roles, Nicholas Day steals the first act of Platonov with a wonderfully warm and strangely outrageous performance as Ivan; and Sarah Twomey is brilliant as Maria Grekova who can’t bear to be kissed, a nerdy porcelain doll whom Platonov simply regards as a challenge. There’s a strong, threatening performance by Des McAleer as Osip – I loved his performances in the other plays too – and a wide-eyed enthusiastic performance by Olivia Vinall (another of the three-play stalwarts) as Sofya.
Samuel West leads the cast of Ivanov, wonderfully convincing as the self-obsessed, mentally unstable, cruel title character, almost visibly being eaten up by the black dog as he either retreats into inner nothingness or lashes out at those who care about him. I also enjoyed his rather self-effacing Trigorin in The Seagull, flattered by Nina’s attentions, overwhelmed by Arkadina’s, quietly feathering his own nest and just immune to the feelings of others – their feelings and emotions are mere words for him to write down in his notebook and use for his own benefit. Peter Egan gives two rumbustious performances as Shabyelski in Ivanov, and Sorin in The Seagull, and Lucy Briers is brilliant as the ghastly Zinaida in Ivanov, for whom money is everything; when Ivanov asks for a deferment of the loan she reacts as if he’d suggested a threesome with Putin. She also excels in the role of Polina in The Seagull, idly longing to run away with the Doctor, but saddled with her family commitments – and the appalling way she rejected her son-in-law’s goodbye kiss was worth the ticket cost alone. In addition, I have to mention the delightful performances of Emma Amos, showing how beautifully shallow Marfusha Babakina is; and of Beverley Klein, strutting her stuff as the redoubtable Avdotya with great comic timing.
And of course, there’s Anna Chancellor as Irina Arkadina, the actress who acts her emotions rather than feels them, who undermines her son’s attempts to impress and fit in, who rides roughshod over the feelings of others and does it all with charm and grace, although you never know when’s she might turn into a cobra and attack. But the whole cast of all three plays don’t put a foot wrong and everyone gives their very best to create these three insights into 19th century Russian society.
One of the most exciting, stimulating and revealing days of theatre I have ever enjoyed. A splendid vision, splendidly realised. The Young Chekhov season ends on 14th November, but there’s no way this remarkable experience should finish there. Surely the West End awaits?
Production photographs taken from the Chichester Theatre website
It’s always a delight to get your teeth into a meaty chunk of Chekhov, and I wasn’t that certain if I’d ever seen a production of Uncle Vanya before. If I have, it was a jolly long time ago. Mrs Chrisparkle was pretty sure she had never seen it. So, with a rather exciting looking cast it was an obvious choice for one of our three nights in London at the beginning of January.
Written as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, the play is chock-full of the themes you would expect to find in your average Chekhov. Unrequited love, people growing old tragically alone, the pompous pretensions of the middle classes, selfish older people, too much vodka and forestry. Never forget the forestry. Remember the Cherry Orchard, which ends with the trees being chopped down, representing the end of the old order? In Uncle Vanya you have the woefully underachieved Doctor Astrov, who likes to spend his time tending the forests, which activity is obviously attractive to the downtrodden Sonya, who admires and values his hard work. Today you would guess they would both work for the Forestry Commission. The forests that surround the Serebryakov estate depict life – but still, dull, fruitless, dark, never changing life. The kind of life that bored, sad Yelena has married into; she who is a beacon of light for both the doctor and the useless eponymous uncle (actually brother-in-law as far as Yelena is concerned), but a light neither of them will ever get to see by.
No one gets a happy ending but nevertheless it’s not a depressing evening. It’s a fascinating play that gives you loads to think about on the way home, and its flashes of humour are very believable and provide dramatic highlights in this production. It’s thoughtfully and gently directed by Lindsay Posner with no wacky modern ideas of souping it up. Christopher Oram’s sets are very realistic and claustrophobic, but they take a helluva long time to shift from Acts 1 to 2 and 3 to 4, to the detriment of the dramatic tension on stage, which begins to ebb away as a slight impatience for the next scene arises. If the slow scene changes are a subtle way of telling us that life in 19th century Russia moves at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t work.
One other aspect of the general design that I wasn’t entirely happy with, is that there are a number of moments when a character either observes something without other characters noticing, for example Vanya catching Astrov and Yelena in an embrace, or when someone talks about another character out of their earshot, as when Vanya criticises his brother. The Vaudeville stage isn’t that wide, and with the sets as detailed as they are, it is fairly impossible to provide enough visible space between the onlookers and the others to give a credible impression that one bunch of actors can’t see what’s going on at the other end of the stage. Yes I know this is one of those theatrical things where you have to suspend belief, but actually I found it quite hard to suspend it to thatextent.
Ken Stott is a brilliant Vanya. He’s gruff and blustery, passionate and outspoken, but it’s easy to see that’s mainly a front and that deep down he’s a pretty inadequate human being. He could have done something with his life – maybe – his criticising mother (a suitably stern and grumpy Anna Carteret) certainly thinks so; but then he’s 53 and she still doesn’t treat him as an adult, so I don’t suppose he cares what she thinks. He is equally critical of Serebryakov, who has enjoyed some distant success, and Ken Stott plays Vanya’s dismissiveness of his brother’s achievements with a very credible glee. The scene where Vanya shoots his brother is a delight; both Mr Stott and Paul Freeman as the hideously self-obsessed Serebryakov react hilariously to the outcome.
Two other scenes that worked really well – and brought out the humour in the sadness – were the encounter between Astrov (Samuel West giving a great performance of charming inanity) and Yelena (Anna Friel giving equal weight to the character’s mischievousness and sense of total defeat) when she feigns interest in the doctor’s map collection in order to get his attention, ostensibly to find out if he fancies Sonya. He goes all anorakky about it and she fails to convince any interest in the dull old maps whatsoever; Mrs C and I both recognised some of the worst defects in our own personalities there, just as I expect millions of people have done for the last 114 years. I also very much liked the scene in Act Four where Vanya and the Doctor are sitting side by side on Vanya’s bed and he can no longer control his great sadness at the way life has turned out. It was a very moving conversation, played to perfection by Messrs Stott and West.
Laura Carmichael plays the hopeless Sonya with quiet dignity and gives a very convincing performance of someone who clings on to the tiniest hope even though she knows it’s absolutely fatuous. June Watson’s Marina is a kindly and strong old Chekhovian retainer and the always reliable Mark Hadfield brings out both the humour and the weakness of the wretched old landowner Telyegin.
All in all it’s a very satisfying and straightforward presentation of a thought provoking and still relevant play. Definitely recommended.
A Number is the first play by Caryl Churchill that I have actually seen in a theatre. I have read several others but never before witnessed the words coming to life in front of an audience. And her words are fascinating. A Number is a 50 minute one-act play with two actors in constant conversation, and the structure of her writing is based on that ability of people to keep a conversation lively whilst rarely finishing a sentence. This means you have to keep close attention to what’s going on. I can see a link to Pinter, who was also adept at conversational plays, but with Pinter the pauses gave you time to take it in. There aren’t many opportunities to sit and reflect in this play.
And I think that’s one of the problems. Without the ability to reflect on what’s going on you end up somewhere in the range between “not quite sure what happened there” and “what on earth was all that about”. In our post show discussion, Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed on at least two aspects of what actually happened in the story, let alone any philosophical interpretations one might apply to it.
Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story – or at least the story as far as I understand it. Son finds out that he is not unique genetically as there are “a number” of people who were cloned from the same cells at or around the time of his birth. The extent to which Father is complicit in this is one area in which Mrs C and I differ. Son (let’s call him Son A) doesn’t cope with this very well and visits Son B and puts the frighteners on him. Eventually Son A kills Son B. Father and Son C meet – it is revealed that Son B killed himself. (Another area in which Mrs C and I disagree). Son C is well balanced, unlike Son A. Any further dramatic tension comes from how you think the characters react to the situation in which they find themselves.
And that’s the second problem. Delightfully, (at first sight) the Menier has restructured itself so as to present this play in the round (well in the square really). The trouble with our seats (A1 & A2 bought on the first day available) was that they were directly behind the armchair on which one of the two characters is often seated. That meant that for many of the conversations we could not see the reaction of the character facing away from us. Despite being so close to the stage it was a real distancing effect. It may be that others got more from the production because of its staging but, I have to say, we got less. I think it would have worked better on a traditional platform stage at one end of the room.
It goes without saying that real life father and son Timothy and Samuel West gave excellent performances and that the play is definitely thought provoking. But in the end I think it promised more than it delivered.
So on reflection it was a great relief that we also decided to book to see Doon MacKichan’s one-woman-show Primadoona 90 minutes later. This apparently has gone down a storm in Edinburgh earlier this year and is an hour’s tour-de-force encapsulating Doon’s life from award-winning tv comedienne to divorcee and mother of a very sick child. Her comic timing is immaculate; her story is moving and hilarious. We came away from the day feeling that she had got to the heart of the human condition much more directly than Caryl Churchill.