At the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, the Harvey Theater reclaims its original name–the Majestic–with the arrival of director Sam Mendes’s beautiful renderings of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
For his swan song after a triumphant ten-year tenure at London’s Donmar Warehouse, the versatile Mendes (director of many acclaimed productions, including Cabaret and The Blue Room, as well as the films American Beauty and Road to Perdition) has ingeniously paired these plays, which have just completed an award-winning three-month run at the Donmar. He has linked them with a stellar ensemble featuring Simon Russell Beale and Emily Watson, and with his own vision of what these masterpieces are about.
That vision is projected, literally, above the stage as the audience enters to be seated for both productions, which are playing in repertoire at BAM until March 9. “O learn to read what silent love hath writ” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 23) is bannered high above the scenes of country life in Uncle Vanya as well as over the candle- and lantern-lit world of Twelfth Night. That vision is then played out on designer Anthony Ward’s spare sets, lit by Hugh Vanstone (re-created for BAM by David Holmes), in productions that shine like those lanterns with clarity, simplicity and humanity.
Love–romantic, desperate, erotic, foolish, passionate, unfulfilled, unattainable–is a theme of all of Chekhov’s plays. So are hope and nature and the passage of time. Thanks to Mendes and Ward, who set all four acts of Uncle Vanya on a bare stage around a long table signifying the household of Vanya’s crumbling country estate, these themes have never been clearer. There, around that table that never moves, an ensemble of Russia’s endearing but fading gentry play out scenes of country life (the play’s subtitle) over a summer in quest of love, only to find their dreams dashed by others who cannot return it. Upstage, the tall country grass rises, stately and still, and beyond it the bare, decaying theater wall serves as a natural backdrop for the only changing element–the lush lighting–showing the cruel, inevitable passage of time and nature’s indifference to human suffering.
With similar clarity, the lanterns high over the bare-staged, black-and-white Twelfth Night illuminate the play’s own bittersweet theme of love–with its obsessions, passions, surprises and confusions. As in Vanya’s countryside, the loves in the land of Illyria (where Viola has been shipwrecked) are sometimes silent, sometimes not. There’s the misguided love of the countess Olivia for the newly arrived young Cesario, who is really Viola in disguise; there’s the disguised love of Viola/Cesario for the Duke Orsino (who kisses him/her in a wondrous moment of ambiguity); there’s the obsessive love of the steward Malvolio for his lady Olivia; there’s the devoted love of Viola for her sea-tossed, long-lost brother Sebastian. One single set element–an empty silver picture frame–stands up stage center, wherein Mendes frames the object of each character’s desire as he/she changes scene by scene. Like Vanya‘s, the production is crystal clear in its focus and yet as gossamer and dreamlike as the flickering lights themselves.
Simon Russell Beale, whose double-billed appearance won him London’s 2002 Evening Standard Award, plays Vanya in the afternoon and Malvolio in the evening (or the other way around) with equal depth, originality and panache. At 42, considered by London audiences and critics to be one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he displays amazing versatility and virtuosity, blurring the distinction between leading and character actor by being both, defying physical typecasting (he’s short and stocky) with his grace and comic agility. His long list of recent roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, as well as on the West End, show his range–from tragic (Oswald in Ghosts) to ethereal (Ariel in The Tempest) to vaudevillian (second gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh’s filmed Hamlet) to villain (Iago in Othello). His Hamlet (at the RNT and at BAM) also earned him an Evening Standard Award for Best Actor in 2000.
Now in the double roles of Vanya and Malvolio at BAM, Beale has the opportunity to plumb the depths of the tragicomic–the element at the heart of Chekhov’s plays. He delivers astonishingly. As Vanya, whether he’s spewing venom toward the pedantic professor, his former brother-in-law, or snapping sardonically at his mother, or simpering over the professor’s beautiful wife, Yelena, his distinctive delivery (his speeches come “trippingly on the tongue”) is amusing and pathetic at the same time. So is his stature–one moment he’ll be lying on the table drunk with the doctor, next he’s on all fours in contrition before his niece Sonya; then suddenly he’s still, as he offers a bouquet of roses to Yelena, whom he finds in the arms of Dr. Astrov.
Beale is at the height of his capabilities at the end of Act III in the famous “sell the estate” scene, when Vanya responds to his brother-in-law’s announcement with an outcry that unleashes forty-seven years of despair. In a tour de force tirade, he explodes onstage, his rage building to a head-splitting crescendo–then abruptly stops the play in midair while he drinks a glass of water, and resumes the tirade again. To hold up a play and an audience for those interminable moments while he drains that glass is a sign of Beale’s powers. Minutes later he draws a gun to shoot his brother-in-law in the play’s final moment–only to have the professor duck. “How could I miss again,” he cries.
As Malvolio, Beale finds darkness in a role often interpreted as a comedic foil for the others. Like Vanya, Malvolio is the self-imposed victim of unrequited (and unrealistic) love. Like Vanya, who dreams of being a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky, Malvolio suffers from delusions of grandeur–he loves a countess and dreams of becoming a count. Beale finds a touching sadness in Malvolio’s obsession with Olivia, capturing his loneliness in a scene he plays clad in a dressing gown and hairnet. Ultimately, the cruel plot to humiliate him (perpetrated by Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek) results in a punishment far too strong to fit his crimes of longing and fantasy. At the play’s affecting end, he sits in Mendes’s upstage frame, hurt and bewildered (as Vanya was) at how he could be so ill used.
Also in this ensemble (which Beale never overpowers) is the radiant Emily Watson (renowned for her screen roles in Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie and, more recently, Gosford Park). Her pale, light-voiced Sonya (Vanya’s niece who runs the estate and who loves Astrov hopelessly) has a self-effacing simplicity, which renders her final speech of acceptance and endurance all the more moving. As Viola, she’s lovely and vulnerable, especially in the moment when she (dressed as Cesario) finds herself kissed by the impulsive (and confused) Orsino, played with elegance and restraint by the deep-voiced Mark Strong. Strong also brings sexuality to the role of Dr. Astrov, as well as a rare believability in the passion for conservation and dedication to medicine that this complex part requires. In the challenging role of Yelena, Helen McCrory is deliciously sultry as she vamps across the stage. She adds a spark of devilish humor to the role of Olivia too, as she throws open her black velvet coat before the bewildered Viola/Cesario to reveal a see-through black dress. David Bradley doubles skillfully as the priggish professor and the befuddled Sir Andrew, as does Anthony O’Donnell with his haunting guitar-playing as both Telegin and Feste.
“Versions” of Chekhov can be a delicate business. Many fine contemporary writers have offered them: Stoppard, Mamet, Hare, among others. In this case, Mendes has chosen a version of Uncle Vanya by Brian Friel, the eminent Irish playwright (first produced by Dublin’s Gate Theatre). Friel has accentuated the comedy (there’s a whole new series of haymaking jokes in Act I, for example) and paraphrased the original text. He has also added new material (including an offstage character named Hans, lover of Telegin’s wife), resulting in a running string of German jokes. These notes can be surprising to those who know the text. And when he substitutes a line as important as Vanya’s “lovely weather to hang oneself,” the original is missed, too. (Friel’s line is “to swing maybe?” followed by a mimed hanging gesture.) Lest purists be concerned, however, that with Friel’s version they’re getting O’Chekhov, rest assured that while there are embellishments, the humanity of the original shines through. That’s no surprise–Friel, author of such moving dramas as Dancing at Lughnasa and Molly Sweeney, is, like Chekhov, a deep humanist. And when he retains the original, like the echo in the final act (“They’re gone…they’re gone…”), then it’s Chekhov once more.
“Vanya weeps, Astrov whistles,” Chekhov advised Stanislavsky, about the play’s first production. Mendes has followed his playwright’s direction. In the final act, Beale’s Vanya goes down on all fours, weeping in grief as Yelena leaves. Meanwhile, Astrov stands by, waiting for his horses to take him–as well as Sonya’s hopes–away. Distracted, he whistles. The moment is funny, but heartbreakingly so. That’s Chekhov.
Over the past decade, Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s fin de siècle play (he rewrote it quietly at the end of 1896, a revision of an earlier failed play, The Wood Demon), has received many noteworthy productions. Some were distinguished for their Vanyas: Ian McKellen’s at the Royal National Theatre in the mid-1990s; Tom Courtenay’s and Derek Jacobi’s here in New York; David Warner’s televised one for Great Performances. Others were distinctive for the directorial bravura: Peter Lebl’s postmodern production at the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague in 1999; Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street. There were other film versions, too: August, set in Wales, with Anthony Hopkins as Vanya; and Country Life, set in Australia, with Greta Scacchi as Yelena and Sam Neill as Astrov.
Sam Mendes’s Uncle Vanya at the millennium is memorable–clear and human, with a touching Vanya at its core. Its poignancy is enriched by an ingenious, illuminating pairing. After all, how often is Shakespeare seen as Chekhovian?