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A CurtainUp Review
Uncle Vanya

The Donmar's Acclaimed Uncle Vanya Comes to BAM
by Elyse Sommer
Uncle Vanya consists of a series of interchanges showing the disruptive effect of a summer visit by an ailing Professor and his young wife Yelena to the country estate he inherited from his first wife and managed by Sonya, his daughter from that marriage, and her Uncle Vanya. The social, cultural and romantic repercussions of that visit affect the entire household which, besides Vanya and Sonya, includes Vanya's mother, a tea-pouring and wisdom spouting old Nanny and the doctor called to treat the Professor's gout whose housecall lasts until the end of the play.

The many translations and adaptations (those reviewed since CurtainUp's birth are just a sampling) are a testament to the enduring and universal appeal of Chekhov's unhappy and "bored. . .bored. . .bored" estate dwellers whose shared mantra is "I've wasted my life." The Brian Friel translation of Vanya mounted in repertory with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and directed by Sam Mendes for the Donmar Warehouse, is one of the most all-around satisfying I've seen and New Yorkers are indeed fortunate that the production has come to BAM.
The high profile double bill with the distinguished British cast arrives in New York at a most opportune time since it coincides with anoter versions of Vanya at Off-Off-Broadway's Jean Cocteau (a review of which will be posted shortly).
Since each of the Donmar productions clearly stands on its own, I opted to see Uncle Vanya while leaving Twelfth Night for feedback from Dave Lohrey. Until then, advance scuttlebut from those who attended the Shakespeare would insure that those unable to attend both plays, would not be disappointed whatever their choice.
I wholeheartedly share the enthusiasm expressed by Lizzie Loverige during Vanya's run at the Donmar. Therefore, these notes, by way of addendum to her review. The praises heaped on the cast and stagecraft are not a bit overdone. As for the Friel translation, which was also evaluated by Les Gutman during Lincoln Center's 1999 Friel Festival (see link), it makes for a new yet true-to-Chekhov experience.

The cast members, one and all, are particularly adept at capturing the comic aspects of Chekhov's tragi-comedy, but without ever over doing it or losing the overriding sense of unfulfilled lives.

Simon Russel Beale's inept Vanya is amusingly sardonic. He epitomizes inert despair, yet leaps into dynamic physicality, throwing himself alternately on the floor, and on the table. That stretch limousine of a table is the centerpiece of the staging, a character in itself, in that it both draws the character together and keeps them apart.

Mark Strong, lives up to his surname. Though he's tall, trim and charismatic, we have no trouble believing that he's on the brink of alcoholism and that he has aged at as alarming a speed as the environment he cares about so passionately has deteriorated.

Emily Watkins, who's not really plain, convincingly portrays Sonya, the girl whose inevitable spinsterhood is expressed by her beautiful stepmother kind but cruel "you have beautiful hair." Helen McCrory as that stepmother is indeed delightful. Her measured initial entrance and exit evokes peals of audience laughter. When she throws herself onto one of the bentwood chairs, she looks like a figure in an impressionist painting.

The smaller roles are also very fine. Cherry Morris is especially endearing as the old nurse who mutters that she is "a wise old woman" as she tends to her knitting.

David Holmes has done a splendid job of recreating Hugh Vanstone's time setting lighting. The live small musical trio positioned in a box at the right side of the C-D-E rows adds to the atmosphere. Their playing of George Stiles' lovely score marks the transition between acts which are here interrupted by a single intermission.

While the Harvey Theater, a former movie house, lacks the intimacy of the Donmar which has just one level of some 250 seats all around a less imposing stage, this is offset by BAM's ability to accommodate more people. Even with more seating and a longer-than usual run, Chekhov and Shakespeare and this terrific troupe of actors are likely to keep the house packed as it was at the matinee I attended. Definitely worth a trip to Brooklyn!

Twelfth Night the London-Donmar with notes on the BAM production.
Uncle/Aunt Vanya/freely adapted from Chekhov
Uncle Vanya/Chekhov (Roundabout)
Uncle Vanya/Chekhov (Lincoln Center Summer Festival
Uncle Vanya (DC)
Uncle Jack Uncle Vanya currently at the Cocteau
CurtainUp's Chekhov Backgrounder

Uncle Vanya
by Brian Friel. A version of the play by Anton Chekhov.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Set Design: Anthony Ward
Costume Design:Mark Thompson
Starring (the name after the/ is the role played in 12th Night): Simon Russell Beale (Vanya/Malvolio, Helen McCrory (Yelena/Olivia), Emily Watson (Olga/Viola), Mark Strong (Dr.Astrov/Orsiono
With: David Bradley (Alexander Sebreyakov/Sir Anthony Aguecheek), Selina Cadell (Marya Voynitsky/Maria), Anthony O'Donnell (Telegin/Feste), Cherry Morris (Marina/Lady), Luke Jardine (Tefim/Fabian/, Gyuri Sarossy (Petrushka/Sebastian)
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone -- re-created for BAM by David Holmes
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Music: George Stiles
Musicians: Caroline Humphris (music director and piano), Peter Sachon (cello), Frederic Hand (Guitar)
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission
BAM's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street (Ashland/Rockwell Pl.), Brooklyn 718.636.4100
For detailed schedule and transportation options, including special Bam Bus Service,
28 performances, 1/16/03-3/09/03. Tickets: $30--$75

--- the Original Review by Lizzie Loveridge ---

Nothing is more ageing than living in Russia.
-- the late Quentin Crisp after seeing a production of Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya
Helen McCrory Mark Strong,Emily Watson and Simon Russell Beale(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Sam Mendes' last productions at the Donmar Warehouse, the theatre he has brilliantly revived over the last decade, are Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, with the same principal actors. It will be fun exploring the parallels between the two plays, the languor of Olivia and Yelena as played by the beautiful Helen McCrory is one which immediately springs to mind. Simon Russell Beale will play Vanya and Malvolio, both stewards, both misguided in where they place their affections and both abused. Then there is Mark Strong as Vanya's disillusioned doctor Astrov and the self indulgent Orsino. Emily Watson will contrast the dutiful Sonya with Orsino's devoted companion Cesario who is really Viola. Now I can see why Mendes has chosen these two plays for his swan song.

Having seen the play, I think the wonderful Irish playwright, Brian Friel is correct to describe this 1998 version of Uncle Vanya as being written by him and as a version of the play by Anton Chekhov. It is not the same play as the original. Friel has added elements but as far as I can ascertain, left out none. The main additions are to the part of Ilya Telegin (Anthony O'Donnell) who has many comic asides centred on his personal problem of excessive sweating, something Chekhovian characters would never have discussed with a lady like Yelena.

I was enchanted by Helen McCrory's Yelena. We are close enough in the Donmar to see facial expressions. While she refused Vanya saying "No, no", her eyes flickered with quick glimpses of interest telling us how exciting it is to have an admirer, even one as maladroit as Russell Beale's Vanya. Just something to relieve the relentless boredom. Mark Strong proves that he is in command on the stage, an interesting and complex figure nicely cast as the enigmatic Astrov who seems to be on his way to becoming an alcoholic. Emily Watson achieved the plain appearance for us to believe that Sonya cannot find a husband, despite her ability to run a household. She and Russell Beale's Vanya deliver as the tragic pair. Russell Beale's clumsy Vanya, often head in hands, has a glazed look, yet with moments of delightful wit at the expense of his ghastly brother in law, "I didn't hear research calling, did you?" There is good comic support from Anthony O'Donnell as the curious Telegin and Cherry Morris as the perceptive old nurse, Marina. The performances underline the inertia, the waste of good productive lives in nineteenth century Russian country society.

Set around a long dining table, with bentwood chairs , on overlapping, worn Persian rugs, thick grass raised above the stage to remind us that we are in the country, the design reflects the claustrophobic ennui. The costume too helps the characterisation, David Bradley's conceited Professor Serebryakov in his black coat with astrakhan collar and his young wife, Yelena, delicate, from head to toe in white broiderie anglaise with a wonderful trimmed flat straw hat angled down to conceal her face. Sonya and Vanya, of course, are in plain workaday functional clothes. I was sitting on the side where the drawback of the static set in a theatre was obvious in as far as some actors were blocked for too long while they were speaking. Soulful 'cello creates further atmosphere.

You will have to fight to get a ticket as I understand both plays are sold out. There are ten seats available each day from 10.30am when the box office opens and I am told the queues form from 8.30am. But it is worth standing in line for hours to see the tedium McCrory conveys as Yelena just by slowly stirring her cup of tea.

Curtain Up's Feature Chekhov Page with Links to other Vanya reviews

Matt Wolf's book Sam Mendes at the Donmar - Stepping Into Freedom with a foreword from Sam Mendes will be published mid October.

Brian Friel's new work AfterPlay based on two of Chekhov's characters Sonya (from Uncle Vanya) and Andrei (from The Three Sisters)opens in September at the Gielgud after premiering in Dublin. John Hurt and Penelope Wilton star.

--Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th Septenber 2002 preview performance at the Donmar Warehouse
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