A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Uncle Vanya

The production of Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse is as ideal a presentation of Chekhov’s masterpiece as we shall ever see.  It is brilliantly acted by an ensemble company, led by Simon Russell Beale, and sensitively directed by Sam Mendes, illuminating every shade of meaning in Brian Friel’s fine adaptation.  In Anthony Ward’s minimalist set, all the action takes place around a long wooden table and ten chairs, thus directing all the audience’s attention to the expert acting.  Each of the six major characters on the Serebryakov country estate in 1899 Russia is frustrated and disappointed, living among what one of them describes as “these petty squabbles, these corroding jealousies, these small domestic hatreds that eat away at our lives.”  Yet the characters of this tragicomedy are individuals, so compassionately observed by Chekhov that they are universal.  We identify and sympathize with them even as we laugh at and pity them.

Simon Russell Beale catches every nuance of Vanya, 47 years old, fat and rumpled, a born loser who falls passionately in love with his professor-brother’s young wife. Despite the fact that he receives no encouragement from the cool Yelena, Vanya pursues her, groveling at her feet and declaring his love, even when she tells him that they have just one thing in common: “We are both dreary, uninteresting people.”  Helen McCrory is convincingly magnetic not only as the languorous center of attention, but, even more challenging, she reveals the desperation beneath the cold exterior. She signals this in  telling movements, like returning the embrace of Astrov  after a sexually charged scene in which the two stalk each other. Having been dazzled by the professor and his reputation for academic brilliance, she is now disillusioned with their marriage and with their forced move to the estate now that he is retired and on a pension.

 Their arrival at the estate is the catalyst that brings self-recognition and ensuing despair. Helped by his niece Sonya, Vanya has been drudging away his life working on the estate to provide an income for his brother Alexander to maintain an exalted academic position in town, living in style with second wife Yelena. The tall grass growing above the set suggests the underground existence Vanya alludes to, berating Alexander: “For twenty-five years we’ve been buried here like moles, Mother and Sonya and I, working for you….And everything he said, everything he wrote, we believed, we knew that it was an utterance of genius; and our little moles’ eyes gleamed with wonder and reverence and unqualified delight.”

  Vanya now bitterly realizes that his brother is a charlatan for whom he and Sonya ruined their lives:

 “Worked like a slave for him….And now we know it was all a shell.  A life-time of chicanery – spurious, fraudulent, empty….Oh my God, what a fool I’ve been.”  As Vanya, Simon Russell Beale confirms that he is one of Britain’s greatest actors.  Hamlet-like (he recently played that role), he can be witty one minute, despairing the next, and mad or playing mad the next.  His mother (Selina Cadell) ignores him, saving her praise for Alexander.  In an outburst to her, Vanya laments a lost career and a youth misspent in drudgery: – “Maybe your son would have been a Schopenhauer, Mother – a Dostoyevsky, maybe.  I am desperate, Mother.”  Her reply is, “Just do whatever Alexander proposes.”

What Alexander selfishly proposes is that they sell the estate, at which Vanya explodes.  Beale’s anger is fiery, but disciplined, as Vanya rushes at his brother with a gun.  Typically, he misses - twice.

As the virile country doctor Astrov, an early environmentalist displaying his maps of forestland needing preservation, Mark Strong reveals idealism coupled with cynicism, aware that Yelena is indifferent. Chekhov, a doctor himself, was aware of the plight of the overworked country practitioners. To the comforting old housekeeper Marina, well portrayed by Cherry Morris, Astrov complains, “Doctor Atrophied, that’s me.”  He tells of his visit to a village during a typhus epidemic: “I’d never seen squalor like that ever before: hovels filled with smoke – filth – the stench of decay – those low voices asking patiently for help – children dying on bare floors and pigs and sheep walking across them.  I did what I could.  Worked non-stop through the day…”   The passage is illustrative of Brian Friel’s vivid dialogue, and of the desirability of having a playwright render Chekhov’s text for the stage.  (David Hare has adapted “Platonov” and Michael Frayn “The Cherry Orchard.”)

 David Bradley brings to the role of the posturing professor Alexander Serebryakov all of the ego and histrionics associated with this character, but he also creates sympathy for the older man who has lived at the top for so long and now finds himself at the bottom, reduced to living on his former wife’s estate. Complaining to Yelena, he recalls his earlier life of privilege:  “Mental stimulation, intellectual excitement; publications, success, fame. And I relished every second of it.  And this is where it all ends up, on a broken-down estate….My life is over, Yelena, and I didn’t experience any of it.  It –it eluded me….And I’m frightened of dying….Terrified.”

The professor’s daughter Sonya perhaps elicits most of the audience’s sympathy, because the others have made their choices.  Sonya is a victim of fate.  Her mother, Alexander’s first wife, died when Sonya was a child. (Marina calls her an “orphan,” because of her absent father.) Sonya works with Vanya in a dreary routine of bookkeeping, bill paying, and meeting the daily emergencies of farm life, like the hay mowers who may not appear if it rains and ruins the crop.  In a heartwarming performance, Emily Watson combines Sonya’s strength and faith with her school-girlish,  unrequited love for Dr. Astrov.  She is wary of Yelena, and justly so, for that young woman’s agreement to speak to the doctor in Sonya’s behalf turns into her own love match with him. Of the principal characters, Sonya is the only one who does not bemoan her fate, but realistically accepts it.  Her final speech, comforting Vanya , assuring him that they can and will endure, to receive their reward in the next life, is one of the most beautiful passages in Chekhov, and Ms.Watson delivers it beautifully.