Uncle Vanya – April 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th April 2012

Although the main performances had come on from our earlier visit, I found I didn’t get much more enjoyment out of the evening, as this version focused more on the period specifics rather than the wider issues. I was more aware of the Russian background to the piece and less about the people and their relevance to our times, although the environmental concerns were are topical as ever. Still, it’s a good production, and deserves to get a transfer if they can work out the details.

Yelena’s performance was probably the most changed from last time. I’d felt before that Lara Pulver wasn’t sufficiently glamorous in the role; not so tonight. She drifted languorously across the stage, fully justifying Vanya’s descriptions of her, and I couldn’t decide whether her sexual posturing was completely unconscious on her part, or whether she was doing some of it deliberately. Her relationship with Sonya was much clearer tonight – they were similar in age, and became almost sisters as they shared their feelings and girlish laughter. I was better able to ignore Dervla Kirwan’s good looks tonight, which made it easier to relate to Sonya’s situation.

The age differences came out strongly all round tonight, with the professor looking much the same age as his mother-in-law. Timothy West had his lines pat this time, which helped to make the third act in the drawing room even stronger. Maggie Steed had also developed her part as the mother-in-law, and her early exchanges with Vanya became a lot clearer as a result. Even when edging round the room to find a suitable location to sit and read her pamphlets, she was a strong presence on stage.

Alexander Hanson delivered his lines much more clearly as the doctor, and his character naturally seemed better defined as a result. Roger Allam presumably made some changes in his performance, but I didn’t notice any specifics; I felt he gave such a strong performance first time round that there wasn’t so much left to work on. Anthony O’Donnell and Maggie McCarthy were equally as good as Telegin and Marina respectively. Nothing else had changed in the staging that I could spot, and the scene changes were as long as before.

I still felt there wasn’t anything new in the play for me, but this time I did reckon the characters were connecting a bit with each other. The scene where the doctor explained his maps to Yelena worked particularly well; the air between them was alive with sexual attraction and frustration in about equal measure. There was a strong sense of order being restored at the end with the departure of the interlopers, even if Vanya and Sonya had a lot to grieve over. A good start to this year’s Festival season at Chichester.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – April 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Tuesday 3rd April 2012

This was an enjoyable production, if not up to the level of SATTF’s Shakespeare offerings. The stage was decorated with more furniture than usual – rugs, a small bookcase, tables, chairs, sofas, etc. – and the setting was emphasised with strong lighting changes between acts. The story was told at a fairly brisk pace, and there was a good amount of humour throughout the performance as well as an understanding of the various characters’ situations. I’m finding Chekov’s work less interesting at the moment though; don’t know if it’s just a dry spell or whether I’ve got as much as I can from the plays. Either way I reckon this was a very good production, though not the best I’ve seen.

There was still the sense of characters talking at each other without making a connection at times, and I was aware of the oddness of Charlotta’s speech at the start of the second act. Chekov seems to be presenting us with a melange of characters from rural Russia, and they each get their turn to be centre stage regardless of any plot that might be going on. It’s an OK way to do things, but sometimes I feel it disrupts the rhythm of the piece.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett played Varya, the adopted daughter, and brought out her concerns about money very strongly along with her fear of being called a miser. I wasn’t so clear about her love for Lopakhin this time, but it was still a shame that he couldn’t bring himself to propose to her. Simon Armstrong’s Lopakhin was an energetic, bustling man who would always need to be doing something; I’m not sure this Varya would have suited him so well as a wife. Julia Hills was a fine Ranevskaya, with no sense whatsoever but a great deal of charm, and Christopher Bianchi’s Gaev was a decent, kind man who just talked far too much.

The rest of the cast did good work as well. I liked the truculence of Firs, played by Paul Nicholson, and Piers Wehner gave us a Yasha you just wanted to slap (a good thing in a Yasha). I enjoyed this much better than their Uncle Vanya in 2009 – perhaps the different venue didn’t work so well for me – so I wouldn’t rule out seeing any SATTF non-Shakespeare productions in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – March 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 30th March 2012

Pretty impressive for the first preview performance. Overall I would say this is a balanced production, giving us plenty of humour along with an understanding of the characters.

The set was expansive (for the Minerva) and detailed. A wall of windows along the back of the stage had a couple of doors in it. Trees were visible through the windows, and there were several dotted around the stage as well, with one right up against the seats over on the left side. [From the post-show in April, one woman would happily have chopped it down!]  The first scene is set outside, so there was a large table with chairs, the samovar on a table over on the right at the back with a couple of chairs, and not much else.

The set changes took a long time, but the results were effective. The dining room had a carpet, the main table and chairs plus some others, and ceiling lamps were lowered as well. The drawing room was much the same, but had an extra carpet and a chaise longue, while Vanya’s room had a small table for the doctor’s stuff and lots of paperwork was laid out on the main table for Sonya and Vanya to work on. The costumes were all fine, and Yelena had a new outfit for every scene, as befitted her role of trophy wife.

There were a few problems tonight. I couldn’t always make out the doctor’s dialogue, although everyone else seemed pretty clear. I would have cast Sonya and Yelena the other way round, as Dervla Kirwan (Sonya) is much better looking than any other Sonya I’ve seen, and Lara Pulver didn’t radiate the glamour required for a Yelena – this may come with time. Timothy West stumbled a bit over his lines in the third act, a bit more than we can allow for an elderly character, but again this should improve with time.

During the second act, when Sonya interrupted Vanya, Astrov and Telegin singing their rowdy song I was reminded of Twelfth Night, and the similarity was very strong in this performance. Throughout the play I felt the characters were each living in their own universe, with little or no contact between them, and although this is a valid way to present these people, it doesn’t help me to engage with them as much as I’d like to. I found myself wondering if Chekov’s five plays are perhaps done too often, given that there isn’t the same scope to reinterpret them as there is with Shakespeare’s work, and he wrote over thirty plays! I certainly didn’t feel I was discovering anything new from tonight’s offering although it was enjoyable, and it will be interesting to see how the production comes on when we see it again in April.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – July 2011

10/10

By: Anton Chekov, in a version by Andrew Upton

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th July 2011

This was the most wonderful production. Even before the start I liked the look of the set, or what I could see of it in the gloom. Instead of the usual palatial if somewhat dowdy nursery, this was a very rustic house with dilapidated plank walls and drab old furniture. It gave me the sense of a house in the back of beyond as well as creating a stronger contrast with the luxury and style of Paris, and emphasised the rose-tinted aspects of Madam Ranyevskaya’s nostalgia. The telegraph/telephone pole to the right of the stage (there were actually two of them, but the other one was hidden at this point) was a reminder of the technological changes that were underway around that time, and this opening set had me engaged before a line of dialogue had been spoken.

I spotted the body on the seat as well, though I’d forgotten it was Lopakhin who would be under the blanket. I realised this was a structural motif, beginning and ending the play with someone asleep; although Firs could well be dead – in this production he’s simply lying on the floor –  it tops and tails the play nicely. I also spotted the similar technique in the second act, which starts with Dunyasha and Yasha emerging from the long grass and ends with Trofimov and Anya disappearing into it.

The performance itself did not disappoint. The dialogue was crisp and clear – an excellent translation by Andrew Upton – and despite the modernisms it felt right. The story hadn’t been tampered with much, although there was a car instead of a carriage and horses, but I felt there was more being said between the characters this time which may be down to the new version. Not having seen the original Russian version, I can’t tell.

But I did get a lot more out of this production than I have previously. While there was plenty of humour, the performances took the characters and their situations seriously, and set all these in an historical and political framework which made sense of every part. I could see how the cherry orchard symbolised Mother Russia, which had become exhausted through supplying beauty and luxuries to the idle rich, its fresh potential largely untapped due to the nostalgic clinging of the elite landowners. Trees for the few have to be cleared to make houses (i.e. better living conditions) for the many. There’s no place in this new Russia for those who adhere to the old ways, so Madam Ranyevskaya has to leave, and Firs, sadly neglected, can only die. Others have to make new lives as best they can – I wonder what happens to them all? Before the Revolution, that is.

Another good aspect of this production is the additional ensemble that provides the extra characters for the party scene, as well as the extra servants. It does give a much better sense of the community that exists around the estate, even if the quality of the guests isn’t up to the standards of yesteryear (according to Firs).

And so to the individual performances. Conleth Hill as Lopakhin was worth the price of admission alone. He was absolutely spot on as the peasant made good who could never shake off his past but who desperately wanted acceptance from Ranyevskaya. His plans for the estate were lucid and sensible, and his desire to help Ranyevskaya was almost palpable. He’s delighted to have bought the estate at the auction, heady with the success of it, and I felt he was at some level getting back at Madam Ranyevskaya for her rejection of him. When it came to the proposal to Varya, he might have gone ahead with it if he hadn’t been interrupted at the crucial moment. But then again, maybe not.

Emily Taaffe played Dunyasha, the maid with ideas above her station. She’s looking for romance instead of a steady husband and is easily seduced by Yasha, the manservant who has come back from Paris with Madam Ranyevskaya. She’s unlikely to have a happy life, wanting so much that she can never get. Yasha was played by Gerald Kyd and came across as a nasty piece of work, used to satisfying his own pleasure and with little concern for anything or anyone else. Dunyasha’s other suitor, Yepihodov, was played by Pip Carter, and he was brilliant at portraying this character’s complete ineptness. We could tell from his first entrance what he was like, saying all the wrong things and clumsy with it. His attempted wooing of Dunyasha in the garden scene was very funny as he strolled around trying to look manly and failing, while Yasha just sat there oozing testosterone from every pore.

Anya, played by Charity Wakefield, was fine, while Zoe Wanamaker was wonderful as Ravyenskaya. She came across as an emotional junkie, always getting involved with the wrong sort of men and with no grasp of practical matters. When she was given the telegrams in the first act she became quite upset, and it was to help distract her that Gaev, her brother, launched into his paean of praise for the bookcase, looking at her almost all the time to see if she was listening. Everyone else was aware of her unhappiness too, and I noticed several characters glance at her with sympathy.  This was another strong point of this production; the reactions from everyone on stage indicated they were all involved in whatever was going on, which kept a high level of  energy  throughout.

Ranyevskaya’s shock at finding out who had bought the estate was also very moving, and contrasted well with Lopakhin’s jubilation. She was very still, looking out towards the audience and clearly distressed. Despite her flaws I could still understand her point of view – she’d grown up with the cherry orchard and it was all she knew. She couldn’t handle the idea of it being cut down to make way for anything, never mind holiday homes. She was also still mourning the loss of her son years before, and her brittleness was all too evident.

Claudie Blakely as Varya was another gem. She’s held things together for so long, and with so little appreciation and thanks. Her unhappiness at Lopakhin’s failed proposal was very moving. I was strongly reminded of the relationship between Sonya and Vanya from Uncle Vanya when I saw her and Gaev together, although Gaev’s probably never been as productive as Vanya was in the pre-professor days. Gaev was played by James Laurenson, and was a lovely bumbling character with great kindness and verbal diarrhoea. The billiards references weren’t emphasised so much this time, but that wasn’t a problem.

Charlotta was played by Sarah Woodward, an actress I’ve always enjoyed watching on stage. Her Charlotta was bright and snappy, but without any malice, very matter-of-fact. The magic tricks were good fun, and the appearance/disappearance was done next to a folding room divider with tall windows down to about three feet from the floor, so not a lot of room to hide people. Her dog was a cloth puppet, as was the baby at the end, of course.

Simyonov-Pishchik, constantly trying to borrow money, was played by Tim McMullan, and again I enjoyed his performance very much. (What is that white mud the Englishmen are paying him so much for?) Kenneth Cranham as Firs looked more robust than many I’ve seen, but played the faithful retainer very well, while Mark Bonnar as Trofimov caught perfectly all of that character’s passionate idealism, contempt for the past, and reluctance to do any actual work. It was interesting to note that he was just as disturbed by the arrival of the passer-by (Craige Els) as everyone else – perhaps Trofimov won’t do as well in the Revolution as he thinks.

There was plenty of dancing in this production, which made it very lively. The back wall of the nursery at the start opened out to form side walls for the garden scene, and these were then brought back for the living room in Act three. The final Act was also in this room, rather than recreating the nursery. The clarity of the dialogue, the detail in the performances and the relationships, and the superb way the story was contextualised within Russian history makes this one of the best Chekov productions I’ve ever seen, if not the very best. Full marks to the whole team.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – November 2009

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF & Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Bristol Old Vic

Date: Friday 13th November 2009

I was a bit disappointed with this production. I liked the thrust stage, and the minimalist set design was fine as were the costumes, but I just couldn’t relate to the characters and their plight. It seemed to fall between two stools, the comic approach and the serious one and never quite got off the ground as a result. I will also say that the seats we were in, although they gave us a good view, were dreadfully cramped – I hope the refurbishment makes it a more comfortable place to sit. But it is a lovely little theatre, and I wish them every success in giving it the TLC it so clearly needs.

The post-show was an added bonus; they don’t usually announce these until long after we’ve bought our tickets, so it was a lovely surprise to find we’d booked exactly the right performance. The cast and director were there, of course, and the audience were suitably enthusiastic, with a good mix of ages. There was one chap on stage who’s involved in the revamp, and he told us some interesting things about the process, and either he or Andrew Hilton explained that thrust stages had disappeared because of health and safety concerns. Back in the days of wooden buildings a theatre had caught fire and killed lots of people so they brought in a law that introduced the safety curtain to every theatre. All naked flames had to be behind the curtain so that if there was a fire the audience could get out OK (shame about the actors, but that’s life). Since the only available lighting was limelight it meant the footlights at the front of the stage had to be moved back, which meant that actors who came in front of the proscenium arch could no longer be seen clearly and the front part of the stage was therefore redundant and disappeared. Now that we have the magic of electrical lights we can have the actors doing all sorts, swinging from the roof, leaping across the seats, strutting their stuff down aisles and round the back; you name it, an actor has probably performed from that very place. Fascinating stuff.

So a good night out in that we ‘discovered’ a lovely new theatre, learned some interesting things in the post-show, and semi-enjoyed the performance itself.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – July 2009

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Sam Mendes

Company: Old Vic Bridge Project

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st July 2009

As we arrived today, I remembered that the same line was shown on the screen at the back for The Winter’s Tale – “O, call back yesterday, bid time return” [Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2]. The platform was the same, again a nursery with a child’s bed, back right this time. The furniture was much smaller this time. Two oil/gas lamps hung from the ceiling. For the second act, the furniture was cleared and cushions were strewn around. After the interval, for the party scene there were two central round tables, one on each side as it were, and another table front right. They all had lots of bottles and other party debris on them. A cordon of simple chairs completed the setting. For the final leave-taking there were the usual piles of luggage and a few remaining nursery chairs, just to remind us where we were.

We were both a little disappointed with this production, after the glories of The Winter’s Tale. While the performances were all good, none seemed outstanding, and they just didn’t involve either of us emotionally. As a result, I found myself getting quite bored during some parts, although I must admit there were also a number of good laughs to be had. This version didn’t mention that Varya was adopted, as far as I could tell, so her situation didn’t come across so clearly, and her relationship with Lopakhin was confusing as well. I reckoned Lopakhin was simply in love with Ranevskaya and not really interested in Varya at all, but the final conversation between them, where he fails to propose, suggested otherwise. He got down on his knees, held Varya’s hand, and then came out with some banal remark about the weather. Very funny, but without tearing at the heartstrings as this scene can do. He also stood behind her and appeared to stroke her hair, indicating some strong emotional attachment to her, but for me it came out of the blue.

The final scene, with Firs all alone in a locked up house, started to be moving, but the symbolic music, with the chopping and the cracking sounds (they’re meant to be there) somehow spoiled it for me. Frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn, and I was finding the seat pretty uncomfortable by this time as well.

Selina Cadell as Charlotta did her magic tricks very well, and I was aware when Lopakhin was exulting at having bought the estate where his father and grandfather had been serfs, that some aspects of this play may have stronger resonances for an American audience than for us. The American accents weren’t a problem but they didn’t help either, unlike The Winter’s Tale. So not my favourite production, then, but a hopeful start for the Bridge Project. We’ll look forward to their next offerings.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Ivanov – October 2008

9/10

By Anton Chekov, English version by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Wyndhams Theatre

Wednesday 29th October 2008

Wow. This was an amazing production of this play, the sort of production that makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often. The performances were all excellent, and the set design, costumes, etc made it all the more enjoyable. As far as we could see, the audience were definitely a more theatrical crowd than usual, including Joseph Millson and Niamh Cusack, but even so the coughing was a problem. Ah well.

The opening was visually striking, with Kenneth Branagh standing on his own, pacing about a sort of courtyard outside his house, looking miserable and depressed. He’s startled by the firing of a gun; Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin decides to cheer him up. Borkin is one of those Energiser Bunny types; he’s always got some scheme on the go, and it’s almost impossible to shut him up. Gradually we meet the people closest to Ivanov – his wife Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee), his uncle Shabelsky (Malcolm Sinclair) who happens to be a count, but doesn’t have any money to go with the title, and Lvov (Tom Hiddleston – Posthumus/Cloten in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline), the doctor who’s attending Anna Petrovna and has diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis. Lvov is priggish and self-righteous, and very angry with Ivanov, believing him to be the main cause of his wife’s illness. Anna Petrovna is the loyal, understanding type, but even she’s being worn down by Ivanov’s apparently inexplicable behaviour. Shabelsky just wants to enjoy himself, without having to marry any of the rich widows that this area seems to have in abundance.

The second act shows us the other household that the play is concerned with. Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel), her husband Lebedev (Kevin R McNally) and their daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough) seem to be the centre of attention. It’s Sasha’s birthday, and just about everyone has come to pay their respects. Zanaida wishes they would come to pay her what they owe her. She’s been left very rich (her husband has practically nothing), and she lives on the proceeds of moneylending. Not that she spends a kopeck more than she has to, mind you. When the guests go outside to watch some fireworks (courtesy of Borkin), she goes around the room snuffing out the candles. Ivanov owes her several thousand roubles and the interest is due, but he has nothing to pay her with, hence his trip over to see her to ask for more time. Lebedev is one of those poor husbands who finds himself without authority in his own home, which makes for some very entertaining moments. The “guests”, or hangers-on, are supplemented by another rich widow, Babakina (Lucy Briers), and Ivanov and Shabelsky who arrive with Borkin.

As the birthday party moves outside for the fireworks, various private conversations can go on inside. Borkin jokingly persuades Shabelsky to propose to Babakina, and then Sasha declares her love for Ivanov, which has to be one of the silliest things any Chekov heroine has done. Presumably she believes she can make his life wonderful again. Anyway, he’s about to accept her offer and starting to believe he can be happy again when Anna Petrovna arrives and sees them kissing. She faints. Interval.

The third act is set in Ivanov’s “office” on his estate. It’s a shambles, with painting equipment, a desk, lots of papers, and three men sitting drinking themselves silly. No Ivanov to be seen. Shabelsky, Borkin and Lebedev are chatting and drinking, and waiting for Ivanov. Lvov also turns up, and when Ivanov arrives, just about everyone is clamouring for his attention. He’s in a temper about Shabelsky’s drinking in the office (and the pickled cucumbers, etc), but listens to Lebedev first. Lebedev wants to lend Ivanov enough money to pay the interest he owes to Zinaida, but Ivanov refuses. Lvov then has his turn, and comes out with some ludicrous stuff. He’s so far gone in his arrogance that he can’t see much of what’s happening other than his own prejudices. He believes Ivanov wants his wife to die so he can marry Sasha and get her dowry. Neither man can stand the other, but my sympathies were (just) with Ivanov, as the doctor is almost freakish in his intolerance.

He leaves when he sees Sasha turn up, and then she and Ivanov have their little heart to heart. When Anna Petrovna does arrive, Sasha has gone, but that doesn’t stop them having a row. She’s finally realised that he doesn’t love her anymore (we could have told her that an hour ago), and he lashes out in return, not only calling her a Yid (she was Jewish but converted when she married him), but tells her outright that she’s a dead woman. That gets to her, and although he regrets it, there’s nothing more to be said. I found it wasn’t as shocking as some other moments I’ve seen, such as Freddie borrowing a shilling for the gas meter in The Deep Blue Sea, but it was climactic.

The final act is some time later, after Anna Petrovna has died, and Ivanov and Sasha are about to be married. It’s set in the Lebedev’s sitting room again, only this time the furniture has been cleared out, and there are some decorations (presumably the cheapest). There are various conversations that we get to see. Sasha is having some doubts, but her father talks to her and she’s resolved again. Shabelsky turns up, and before you know it, there are two, then three people having a good cry in the room, with only Lebedev unmoved. I loved it when Zanaida turns up crying as well. I could see that she was in tears at the thought of losing the money Ivanov owed her, as well as having to pay over more roubles for the dowry, rather than any concern for her daughter or emotional upset because there’s to be a wedding.

Ivanov arrives and does his best to persuade Sasha to give him up. She refuses, and after some more confrontations, including another interruption from the doctor, Ivanov takes his courage, and his revolver, into the next room and shoots himself.

Simply telling the story doesn’t begin to get across the impact of this production. With such strong performances, all the characters came to life, and the dialogue, which was modern yet seemed appropriate for the time, sparkled with wit. The character types that Chekov used throughout his career were all here, and I was struck by the way all the people, especially Ivanov, were suffering because of the community they lived in rather than the events of their lives or their personalities. It’s clear Chekov isn’t making any judgements of his characters, which is just as well given the behaviour of some of them. It was a tremendous performance, and possibly the best we’ll see of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me