9/4/2021 UNCLE VANYA PBS Great Performances
Summer has fallen on the Serebryakov estate like a suffocating blanket. Dr. Astrov, called in to tend to Professor Serebryakov’s gout, drinks aimlessly, mourning his lost youth. Ivan (“Vanya”) Petrovitch naps listlessly, only to wake and give vent to his resentment of the professor (his late sister’s husband), who has proved to be a pretentious fraud. The professor’s new (young) wife Yelena mopes about joylessly, finally realizing the emptiness of her marriage. The Professor’s daughter, Sonya, hopelessly in love with Dr. Astrov, resentful of her father’s new wife, and bitter at having to assume Uncle Vanya’s duties caretaking the estate, somehow retains a cheery outlook.
Such is the setup of Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s dissection of the lives of the idle land-owning class. Yet, for all their mopiness and ennui and aimlessness, somehow this production, in a terse translation by Conor McPherson, makes them sympathetic and compelling, if constantly aggravating.
This is, indeed, a beautiful production! First staged in 2020 at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, it prematurely closed last March with the COVID shutdowns. For the purposes of this broadcast, the cast returned to the empty theatre to perform it one more time for the camera. If this sounds reminiscent of Andre Gregory and Louis Malle’s 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, I suspect that is fully intentional. Unlike that film, here we never see the empty theatre, and the glorious set by Rae Smith is only metaphorically decaying. But we are always aware that the Serebryakov estate is as empty of life as the venue it calls home.
So much of the appeal of this telecast rests with the translation by McPherson. He creates an almost musical rhythm of speech, using English colloquialisms and idioms to a greater degree than more “respectful” translations. Yet he and this marvelous cast retain the onion-like layers of the characters, the subtexts that are in full view on their faces, the yearnings and antagonisms that spring up like visible strands of emotion connecting them to each other, connections that, in spite of their best efforts to tear them asunder, remain stubbornly in place.
And this is a terrific cast. Led by Toby Jones (MCU’s Dr. Zola) as Vanya and Richard Armitage (Thorin in The Hobbit movies) as Dr Astrov, they beautifully capture these characters on the brink of extinction. Mr. Jones gives us a Vanya whose level of anger is so ingrained it’s almost visible oozing out of his skin. And yet his suppressed love for Yelena bursts out in too many creepy moments. And Mr. Armitage gives a near-perfect portrait of a character (the first time a character in a play expresses a profound fear of the connection between deforestation and the collapse of civilization) losing his battle with the bottle, even as he lets his fear of aging divert him from his more noble purposes.
Another standout in this cast for me is the Sonya of Aimee Lee Wood’s (Netflix’s Sex Education). Definitely too attractive to fully merit her character’s description as “ugly,” she still manages to use body language and downcast eye lines to sell that aspect of the character. More to the point, she looks at Dr. Astrov with such puppy-eyed adoration, her love for him is painfully obvious to us (and to every other character except Astrov himself) before any word is spoken of it. And best of all, she delivers that final optimistic monologue with so little guile, with such sincerity, that the full irony of its optimism is like a sucker punch to the gut.
Other members of the cast include Roger Allam as Serebryakov, Anna Calder-Marshall (Cordelia in Olivier’s 1983 TV version of King Lear) as Nana, Rosalind Eleazer as Yelena, Dearbhlas Malloy as Mariya, and Peter Wight as Telegin. All have extensive British credits, and all create indelible characters who merge into a near-perfect ensemble.
As I noted above, this is a beautiful set, beautifully echoing a faded glory by being drenched in earth tones and unkempt detritus but stretching dozens of feet into the flies and perfectly backing the four different locations, even as the walls and doors remain the same. Terrific lighting that beautifully reflects time of day and sources just outside the windows and French doors captures the moods perfectly and just looks wonderful. Stage Direction by Ian Rickson and Video Direction by Ross MacGibbon merge beautiful for a one-of-a-kind Chekhovian viewing experience.
I consider it a miracle of dramaturgy that this disparate group of hopeless, aimless, frustrated characters can populate a play with so little driving action, and still create a work so full of drama, so full of life, so full of passion. I consider it a joy of Public Television membership that this is available to watch now and forever. And I consider it a duty to share it with any and all of you.
This is a play that is “peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress,” a diamond in the pantheon of theatrical gems that shines even upon the unhappiest of us all.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #PBSGreatPerformances #UncleVanya)
WATCH PREVIEW HERE
WATCH THE PLAY HERE (Must be a PBS Passport Member)