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.