Tag Archives: Conor McPherson

New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.

Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.

Location and Staging

Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.

Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.

Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.

Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.

Character Psychology

The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.

The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.

Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.

The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.

But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.

And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.

Uncle Vanya was due to play until 2 May and The Seagull until 30 May. Three Sisters ended in February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Uncle Vanya - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Life is the same only worse,” a sentiment that seems to reflect so much about our mood in the last few years, spoken by Uncle Vanya in Conor McPherson’s new version of the play. Notably departing from Chekhov’s original here and there, this adaptation, which has a little settling to do ahead of its Press Night later this week, emphasises the comedy scenarios and personalities in Chekhov’s timeless play while still drawing out its major themes – ageing, purposelessness, the challenge of intellectualism in rural societies and, modern audiences may be surprised to note, even climate change.

Uncle Vanya is a play that rarely leaves the West End for long with at least three major productions in a decade. In fact, Chekhov has felt very much in vogue of late with several productions in the last few years taking illuminating approaches to his best-known works. Famously heavy-going and often encased in oppressive sets and stifling costume, a new wave of directors and designers have liberated the emotional undercurrents that thrum through Chekhov’s plays, a fragile humanity clinging to existence and lost in the travails of daily life. The clarity of these new directional approaches is finally cutting through the period fustiness in which his work had been too long preserved.

Ian Rickson’s latest attempt essentially situates Uncle Vanya in a similar social and political existence as last year’s sensational Rosmersholm. A vast, light-filled room on a sizeable estate outside of which the world is struggling; the local community are poverty-stricken and plagued by illness while in the house long-buried emotions rise to the surface prompted by and maypoled around the arrival of Yelena, wife to Vanya’s brother The Professor, staying temporarily to complete his latest paper. Like Rosmersholm, Rickson lays bare the intricacies of the household, its politics, familial resentments, assumptions and buried passions as the characters contemplate lives of unfulfillment in which endurance rather than happiness is their only satisfaction.

But McPherson’s approach is far lighter than the themes of the play might suggest, recognising not just that audiences want to be entertained as well as moved, but also that Chekhov’s work has always had its skewering moments of social satire that examine the ridiculous pomposity of individuals or situations. McPherson emphasises the lightly comic overtones to Acts One and Two by giving Vanya a clown-like levity as he criticises the dry scholastic achievements of his brother and, in Act Two, enjoys a a period of drunken revelry with neighbour Dr Astrov and dependent Telegin, a well-managed high-point in a show that finds humour wherever it can.

This focus also gives this adaptation a more relaxed feel than previous attempts, thereby creating a more credible group dynamic among the various residents, guests and visitors to the family, people long established in each other’s company who descries the stiff conventions of polite society that so often govern interactions in Chekhov productions. McPherson applies this in equal measure to the language in his script and while the characters are not quite speaking in colloquial patterns, the formality and artificiality of traditional language is something McPherson eschews in favour of a more natural selection of words and phrases. It is a subtle but meaningful decision that trades the sometimes archaic construction of most translation for an everyday speech that once again reflects and reinforces the over-familiarity of these people with one another.

Humour, then, runs to a degree throughout the play and while the conversations naturally darken as the dramatic currents are resolved (or as much as Chekhov’s characters earn any form of resolution), McPherson gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of extreme behaviours, especially when Vanya and the Professor go head-to-head in Act Three. Yet, ahead of Press Night, there is a downside to this approach which sometimes cuts into the emotional subplots and dramatic intensity. This is not, for example, a production that feels like a grand tragedy with even some of the significant emotional revelations and confrontations provoking smatterings of laughter. McPherson writes these elements well – and perhaps controversially gives three characters brief monologues to the audience to explore how they are reduced and caged by the events of the play – but as the balance tends primarily to the comic, it comes slightly at the expense of its other drivers.

For Uncle Vanya – like many of Chekhov’s plays – is ultimately about the essential nature of people and their inability to escape the confines of themselves. They talk frequently of freedom, the hopeful future ahead, the joys of nature and better lives in the cities they will never go to, but their existence is bound by the room in which they stand. Drama, respite and ultimately self-realisation comes from the introduction of characters temporarily taken out of their rightful context and here, in Rickson’s production, duel ripples are created by the regular visits of Dr Astrov and, more determinedly, by the presence of Yelena.

The core individuals in this play are seeking some kind of release or escape from the frustratingly ordinary routines of their daily life by looking to others who fail to observe their emotional needs, a strand to which McPherson and Rickson bring considerable clarity. Passions are deeply felt but isolated and unrequited for the most part, the object of their affection does nothing to instigate or encourage a feeling they don’t return or even notice. Sonya’s six-year affection for Astrov, Vanya and Astrov’s infatuation with Yelena are all doomed, with much to say about the blindness of characters to see beyond their own state or truly read the feelings of others. The selfish and arguable lack of empathy with which this group view one another is striking here and it is only through rejection that self-realisation is possible for each of them. Ultimately Chekhov argues, no one can save you but yourself.

And while comedy dominates, the emotional heart of this version of Uncle Vanya, surprisingly is not the sweet but insipid affection of Sonya who cannot even speak of her feelings, or the ephemeral presence of the sleepwalking Yelena, but it is the reawakening of Dr Astrov whose dormant connection to the present is full-bloodedly revived. From the first moments of the play we glimpse something broken in Astrov, almost a hint of PTSD emerging from the terrible medical sights he’s seen and his recent failure to save a particular life that haunts him. The middle of a struggle is a tough place for an actor to begin, but Richard Armitage perfectly hits the intense sadness and interior confusion that introduce the tragic doctor to the audience in the earliest moments of this play.

Astrov is a man who cannot bear to live in the present, and looks only to surviving his lot in order to play his part in a better future, a frequent refrain being the improved quality of life the population a century hence will enjoy which brings him an existential comfort. His attempts to stem the tide of local deforestation erupt in lively exclamations from Armitage who blossoms through his enthusiasm for nature, while acutely living without love or purpose within his day-to-day profession.

Having shut-down all emotional responses or belief in personal happiness, Armitage is especially good at showing Astrov’s complete indifference to Sonya, not only avoiding her evident feelings but seeming to have no knowledge of them at all. So passion, when it does come, surprises and confounds him as entirely as it consumes. It burns slowly at first, a few shy glances in Act One at Yelena, as though testing his ability to withstand it, before erupting into something more fervent and soulful as he urges her to acknowledge the feeling between them. Armitage is wonderful and moving in his distress, forced to repack his armour by the end of the play, almost perplexed by his own conduct and the emotions that momentarily and so violently poured forth. His experience is really the emotional centre of the production and a meaningful return after a five year stage hiatus.

Toby Jones’s Vanya has to navigate quite different extremes of character, layering a sheen of foolishness over the inner turmoil his character experiences in the early sections of the play. Obsessed with the advancing years at 47 and what in retrospect appears to be a wasted life, this put-upon Vanya jokes and blunders his way through various conversations, always assuming the role as family jester. Jones enjoys the comedy easing the audience into the play with warmly received asides and sarcastic jibes that emphasise his displeasure but only reinforce the set structure in which the family has organised itself, working to support the Professor as the most intellectually gifted.

It is only later in the play that this Vanya shakes off those expectations and stakes a claim to an estate that he has worked hard to maintain, a moment that surprises others with its ferocity and hysteria. Jones and Ciaran Hinds’s arrogantly self-serving Professor have a bitter conflagration, one of the production’s most dramatic but enjoyably staged sequences. Within the performance, Jones could do a little more to seed these frustrations earlier to make sense of the scale of Vanya’s reaction here and the same with Vanya’s oft-declared love for Yelena which seems less deeply felt than the production implies, leaving the audience appreciating her exasperation with the slightly empty neediness that Vanya exudes. The tonal approach tips the balance slightly too far into the comedy, fractionally drawing intensity away from the crescendo of desperation and unhappiness that mark Vanya’s final transition later in the play.

The female leads contrast well as Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya suggests an unimposing innocence that prevents her from attaining her dream of being Mrs Astrov. Sonya is ever the peace-maker, attentive, capable and kind but Wood aptly demonstrates her lack of courage, her failure to find a strong insistent voice that can take charge of the squabbles around her or even to fight for a different kind of life for herself, instead preferring resignation and acceptance. Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena is by contrast an accidentally destructive force and clearly marked out from the others by a quite different style of dress that simultaneously embraces but pretends to ignore her sexuality. This Yelena drifts abstractedly from room to room, suffocating in the country air and barely able to exist, yet is equally unmoved, bored even by the ardent attentions of others that she seems to feel have nothing to do with her. There is neither encouragement nor censure in Eleazar’s measured, dreamlike performance that creates a riveting otherness in Yelena with only the smallest hint of untrammeled depths in the play’s final scenes.

With no scene changes, Rae Smith’s painterly design, lit beautifully by Bruno Poet, is full of rundown charm, a great house fallen to disrepair but full of comfort and solace. The streaming sunlight through the large windows adjoined by the forest that forces its way into the house reflect the play’s themes while, as the drama unfolds, the ensuing darkness and change of seasons is visibly reflected when summer gives way to autumn in every sense. This Uncle Vanya is more roundedly entertaining than other recent productions and while that detracts a little from the emotional undercurrents of the original, the fluidity and richness of Rickson’s production, performed by an excellent cast, ensure a satisfying Chekhovian conclusion where life, as Vanya states, is the same but worse.

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 2nd May with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 

 


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