Tag Archives: Harold Pinter Theatre

The Human Voice – Harold Pinter Theatre

For the second successive week, a superstar director has taken a different course in response to the intimate demands of a character-driven play about relationships. Where Marianne Elliott suspended the breadth of her, often sweeping, vision to create a forensic analysis of sexual identity in Cock, so too does Ivo van Hove put aside his filmic style for an intimate monologue about the end of love. Starring Ruth Wilson, Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, is a sympathetic study of a women driven to distraction by a final phone call with her lover to which van Hove brings shades of meaning and interpretation.

Not since A View from the Bridge has van Hove staged a play with so little paraphernalia. From Obsession to Network to All About Eve, van Hove has been interested in the place where cinema and theatre overlap, not just turning established films into theatrical productions, but how the camera can be used as a platform and as a revelatory tool. Network, set in a TV studio, was largely concerned with how individuals use, respond to and are affected by news media in which the protagonist is able to grandstand to a large, passive audience through live transmission. By contrast in All About Eve, van Hove placed cameras in private spaces where characters obscured from the stage audience but projected on screen held whispered conversations and asides that created confederacy with the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer.

While there are no cameras and no projection in this new staging of The Human Voice, van Hove probes that very same division between public and private, putting the audience in the voyeuristic position of observer to both parts of the lead character’s conversation. It is staged in what at first seems like a wide screen, a long rectangle of space surrounded by black. But it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a window, a sliding balcony door of what we presume is a stylish block of flats for young professionals somewhere in a vast and, crucially, lonely city.

But designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s regularly collaborator, gives us very little else to go on. Behind the window is merely a mottled cream wall with no pictures, no distinguishing marks and a home that has no visible furniture or personal effects. Our character is in a void, shut-off from the outside world and us by this substantial picture window behind which she is emotionally and physically caged, trapped significantly behind glass that mutes and contains her.

The effect is two-fold; first it deliberately empties the action of the play of any individuality, reflecting Cocteau’s text that names neither lover or their dog, gives hints of their daily lives, jobs, families or even the conduct of their affair, and instead creates an abandoned, broken-hearted everywoman in no defined era who has given everything up for a man including most of her friends. In response, van Hove places nothing in this space except the woman herself – or what is left of her – and the phone to which she clings and into which her vision of the world and all her hopes are projected. Things do exist beyond this space and into it she brings a referenced blue dress, paper and marker pens, even cleaning products, but there is considerable meaning in what we see and the life beyond the confines of this boxed space.

The second purpose is to place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of spy or interloper, making us privy to everything that happens; the things she wants her lover to know and the private, potentially shameful behaviours that she conceals at home. As this story unfolds and we observe her through the window, it becomes increasingly exposing as her state of mind and emotional control are shaken. Like Eddie Carbone’s self-destruction in A View from the Bridge, we are passive observers and entirely complicit in the outcomes of The Human Voice.

As a directorial technique, the reduced field of vision also brings considerable intensity and intimacy to this staging, shrinking-down the large performance area at the Harold Pinter to just a single viewing point within which the character can move around without losing the focus on her interior life or the building tension of increasingly unsatisfactory and technically disrupted telephone calls. Performed essentially behind a clear screen, a microphone provides the necessary projection which also allows the character to leave the stage as though entering other rooms of her flat or, quite naturally, walking around while on the phone which adds a dynamic and movement to what could easily be a static piece.

Where van Hove adds texture is through a carefully-chosen soundscape that partly brings additional contextual information but also indicates the chapters of this 70-minute drama. It is some way into the piece when our lead opens the balcony door indicating what it is for the first time and a rush of sound comes with it. A combination of traffic and night creatures instantly imply the buzz of a busy city far below, placing the character at a dangerous but important height above the city. In tandem, van Hove provides a soundtrack, a couple of empowering songs that the protagonist plays as she waits for her call and tries to gee herself up for the conversation to come. But in one spectacular sequence, even this is overlaid by a moodier, indie piece that in very cinematic fashion signals her feeling to the audience. It comes at a turning point in the action and although Beyoncé is audible underneath and we see the character shouting into the phone, her exact words are obscured by this track and brilliant yellow lighting that marks an energy shift, leaving us to question her state of mind thereafter.

Within the text, Cocteau leaves the audience to wonder how much of what we see really happens. This viewer is given one half of a conversation conducted on the phone and in a credit to the writing doesn’t leave the main character to repeat what she has heard for our benefit and instead she just reacts to it. We hear the phone ring and, in reference to an earlier time of telephone exchanges, multiple callers appear to intrude on the same line adding to moments of light relief if not outright comedy to leaven the tension momentarily and allow the writer to alter the shape of the story. But later in the play, we begin to question whether there is anyone on the line at all, is this woman, as she says, claiming a final phone call with the love of her life before resignedly accepting the end of their relationship or is there another explanation entirely?

There is a decided separation between how the woman wants to come across, to be considered and remembered, and how she really is. We see her repeatedly assuring her lover that she is well, her voice is calm, alluring even as she tries to be a good sport about it all. She always knew, she claims, that it would end and has enjoyed their time together on that proviso, a model breakup of adult acceptance. Yet, there are hints that there is a specific reason for this untimely separation, another woman, an engagement announcement that perhaps have hastened its end and affected her far more than she shows with only a few spikey comments revealing a deeper affliction to him at least.

So what is her purpose here? Is this truly a decent and civilised goodbye or is the woman using this platform to remind her erstwhile lover what he is missing? Is her seductive tone on occasion and reference to memorable times a strategy to lure him back, one that backfires horribly when she is unable to contain the resentment and distress that come tumbling out across their multiple attempts to connect. And is he worth this pain? There are several hints that he is lying to her about where he is calling from and presumably also the true nature of his connection with another woman. Why has he refused to collect his own belongings and his dog from her flat, sending a servant or associate known as Joseph to do it instead and why does she never call him, is it only because she doesn’t know where he will be or is it for some other reason of concealment. Cocteau leaves these big questions hanging – what could possibly have happened between this couple that necessitates a final phone call but no meeting in person, and just who is really to blame for its conclusion?

The biggest question of all is what is the woman’s state of mind which a lengthy section of the play asks us to reconsider. In her frustration at being unable to articulate her feelings clearly and calmly, is she practising a further conversation with him in her head the way we all do sometimes, only here she is verbalising her half of the dialogue for the audience’s benefit, or has she been talking to anyone at all? Is this whole hour an entirely imagined scenario in which her emotional despair has led her to believe she is in a 60-minute series of calls saying the things she could never do in real life, or, darker still, are there multiple personalities at play, the constant interruptions from other people on the lines, those ‘listening in’ and the woman seeking a doctor, are these merely other aspects of her broken psyche?

Ruth Wilson is always an actor to see on stage and here she captures all the complexities of feeling and the multiple possibilities her character presents. Teaming-up with van Hove once again following their striking Hedda Gabler, Wilson has a unique ability to turn her characters inside out on stage or screen, showing the audience the tumult beneath, and here the wounded underbelly is on full display across a commanding 70-minute performance.

Evolving seamlessly from rational, controlled caller to brittle ex-girlfriend, from fury with the position she has been put in by this man to shy, seductive and sometimes manipulative, Wilson leads the audience through this unfolding conversation as it reveals all the layers, contradictions and engulfing sadness within the women on the phone. Holding together a person who doesn’t want to be looked at but cannot bear to be left alone, Wilson edges her character nearer to the edge as her outward image and inward agitation contend.

Cocteau’s play still feels remarkably alive and relevant 90-years after it was first performed, capturing the tragedy of lost love and the emptiness it leaves behind. It is a quiet play, full of nuance and subtle moments that require close attention as the tides shift within the narrative, and the combination of Wilson and van Hove once again prove a dynamic pairing in this revival, with its understanding of human emotion and empathy for the broken hearted that feels both timeless and contemporary.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April with tickets from £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Translating poetry to the stage can be challenging for both performer and audience, the importance of the language while alive and vivid on the page can feel verbose or intangible, even static, when read aloud. Get it wrong and it can feel stilted and incomprehensible, get it right, even with the most complex poetic imagery, and it can be a magical, inclusive experience that takes us back to the simplest and most pure forms of communication – a single person telling a story. And of course, much will depend on the verse that’s being adapted; whether it contains multiple characters given distinct voices who can be dramatised even within someone else’s narrative, or whether it is a singular collection of thoughts, impressions and philosophies through which the speaker moves alone or in conversation with the silent reader.

The National Theatre produced a marvellous version of Under Milk Wood earlier this year, arguable a radio play for voices but still poetic in vocal style in which Director Lyndsey Turner gave a deep emotional resonance to Dylan Thomas’s words by pitching it as a memory play, wrapping the central poem in a wider narrative about reconnection between a father and son. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a tougher proposition with no storyline as such, only the protagonist-poet reflecting, like Thomas’s piece, on the relationship between past, present and future, as well as the existence of history and the changing seasons in a thoughtful one man show.

Opening at the Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year and arriving at the Harold Pinter Theatre after a brief tour, Four Quartets is not quite a play but more than a dramatic reading, and, across 80 rather swift minutes, Fiennes extracts the many changes of tone and pace, as well as shifts in energy across Eliot’s work that give the show a dramatic purpose and propulsion. While there is no need to understand every phrase, there is a lovely clarity to the questions that the poet is posing about the nature and circularity of time that carries the audience through the knotty reflections as the traveller explores some kind of meaning for his existence in the present.

In doing so, he reaches for a multitude of examples from the physical and very tangible reality of nature in the rose garden where the poem begins, through to familiar references to particular London locations as he imagines the dark trying to creep through Camden, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, while Edgeware Road is mentioned later. The contrast between nature and the city is a frequent refrain, with these earthier matters balanced against grander explorations of man’s place in a wider philosophy of existence that looks to gods and creation as well as religious duty and understanding.

Drawing these strands into a coherent theatre piece is certainly difficult especially as each poem was constructed separately before and during the Second World War, where it would be tempting, perhaps even terribly obvious, to stage them in the guise of Eliot himself reading the works he created and drawing allusions with the changing political and military circumstances in Europe. Just as The Wasteland is associated with the disillusion after the First World War (although not in Eliot’s view), so too could Four Quartets be interpreted as a direct reaction to the shadow of death and destruction sweeping the continent at the time of writing in which he reinforces a certain patriotic notion of green and pleasant England.

Fiennes, who co-adapts with James Dacre, however chooses to make this dramatisation independent of the work’s original creative context and instead places it in a visual no-man’s land, dominated by two giant stone blocks that seem like tombstones which he rotates and moves to signify shifts between the four poems. The rest of the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler has just two chairs and a table which, in a show he has also directed, gives Fiennes places to move around, changing height and location while using the empty seat to indicate the mystical past or future.

Each segment of the production has its own individual style, opening with the gentler reflections of Burnt Norton written in 1936 which places the speaker in his garden musing on the circularity of existence, not only the cyclical seasons that affect the visual and aural cues of the landscape as well as the scents he detects, but also the merging of past, present and future into a single moment. Here Fiennes beautifully conjures the physicality of the garden, relishing Eliot’s colourful rendering of the warm autumn night, the bird the speaker chases and the dark brown pool at its centre.

There are tones of the Romantics in Burnt Norton, of a mind absorbing the beauty of nature but distracted, even abstracted, by the wider concerns of life and its meaning, a sense of old and new worlds colliding and how humanity can make sense of it. In delivery, Fiennes gives these debates a richness, pausing to let each thought settle before pursuing the next line, and while it can be difficult in a one-man show not to race through without the safety of other actors to ease the burden and pressure of audience expectation, here Fiennes is entirely at ease with the space, letting the words fill the auditorium and unafraid of the silence in between where Eliot leaves room for meaning to emerge.

The second poem, East Coker from 1939 opens with the famous phrase ‘in the beginning is my end’, a refrain that recurs throughout this chapter of the show, momentarily reflecting Ecclesiastes’ A Time for Everything, with several lines based on the same ‘there is a time to’ sentence structure in its consideration of the most appropriate time to live, for the wind to blow and for building homes. Again, Eliot draws associations between the grandness of the natural landscape being enveloped and the ‘underground train, in the tube, [that] stops too long between stations’ as passengers confront their mortality for a fraction of a second. And this is something which Fiennes and Dacre’s adaptation does well, emphasising the fragile structures of humanity against the elements, all facing a similar process of death and rebirth.

But Eliot here is also interested in darkness and as the lights slowly dim in the theatre, Fiennes employs an effectual full blackout to recite the passages in which the late November night consumes the living, referencing death and silence as the wealthy and influential go the same way as everyone else regardless of their status. It’s a haunting moment and not repeated, reinforcing the power of Eliot’s words to create strong impressions and images in the collective mind of the audience in what is a momentarily immersive effect.

The Dry Salvages is perhaps the most dramatic segment, focusing as it does on the allusion of man and the sea, the remoteness of the city-dweller from the vivid brown water of the river and the notion of allowing a life to drift until it is cast upon the rocks. There is much here for Fiennes to draw out in the performance from the onomatopoeic reading of ‘soundless wailing’ to the low ring of a naval bell in the distance, the creation of atmosphere around the third of the quartets is particularly enjoyable, gently guiding the audience through the changing imagery.

This segment also considers man’s desire to predict the future and the need to think ahead or look to the past rather than live in the present. Given the context of war at the end of 1940 when this poem was composed, Eliot is exploring notions of spiritualism and destiny that bring comfort and meaning to the powerless. Fiennes articulates this section particularly well as Eliot talks of conversing with spirits, horoscopes, omens and tea leaves as natural reactions in moments of distress, extending his overall thesis about the intersection of different time periods and the spaces between them that we fail to recognise or understand.

The finale of the quartet is entitled Little Gidding and is built around the soothing notion that ‘all will be well’ which recurs throughout. Written in 1942, Eliot is again drawn back to imagery of the English countryside and the garden, as he was with Burnt Norton, referencing burnt roses and ash which gives a balance and completeness to the Four Quartets as a performance as well as a poetry collective, underscoring once again Eliot’s emphasis on the cycles and destructive effect of time as humanity fights for survival.

This section also gives Fiennes his only chance to play a second character as it contains a story of two strangers meeting on the road, one huddled from the cold as the actor sinks into his jacket while the other is commanding like a god or powerful spirit urging transformation in the other. Their interchange, which is well dramatised here, sets-up the remainder of the poem exploring the compression or relativity of time, acquainting the lifecycle of a yew tree and a rose while noting that ‘history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ And just like that, it’s over

None of these separate poems are named in the piece and Fiennes never overtly indicates the change between them in what becomes a continual monologue. Instead, the rhymes and indeed the separate verses within them are punctuated by music and Tim Lutkin’s often spectacular changes of light, the turning of the stone tablets and the actor relocating around the stage. And while that may sound overly self-conscious, it flows effortlessly between Eliot’s thoughts – we may not fully understand or spend time investigating all of the complex imagery in the piece but the emotional range of it is reflected in both the staging and Fiennes’s changing delivery.

In fact, the actor delivers a quite mesmeric performance, drawing out the nuances of tone, emphasis and imagery with a crisp clarity. Fiennes is always at ease with complex language and linguistic structure which has made him such a great performer of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and here he takes a piece that ordinarily exists as a collection of words on the page and only comes alive in the imagination, and gives it an expressiveness that is almost like dance, helping the words move around the auditorium with a power and resonance that becomes quite beguiling.

Four Quartets is perhaps more an experience than a performance, a series of musings and philosophical wonderings that grip as often as they elude. But Fiennes and Dacre have made this more than an intellectual exercise, and while its intangibility can be frustrating, even puzzling, there is real feeling and purpose to the application of a dramatic construct that makes Eliot’s poetry come alive on stage.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Anna X – Harold Pinter Theatre


Who are we and who are the people we meet? These rather profound questions have, in one way or another, been at the heart of Sonia Friedman’s brief Re:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre which concludes with Anna X. A festival of new writing, Re:Emerge has taken us to deepest America to consider space travel, climate and the conflicting scientific and natural worlds, to Notting Hill where Caribbean Black British identity and heritage ran-up against personal acceptance and cultural appropriation at the Carnival, and finally to the fast-paced, image-centric New York art scene where identity is fluid, mutable and only ever screen-deep. The opportunity provided by empty theatres to try out new work and provide a platform for new voices and experiences has been a valuable reassessment of the West End and just who is (and should be) reflected on its stages.

Anna X is arguably the most philosophical of the three plays under the wider Re:Emerge banner, asking complex and sometimes unanswerable questions about what personality, character and identity mean in the digital twenty-first century, where the notion that we can be anything we choose to be is taken to its extremes through the curation and cultivation of our lifestyles, choices and stories presented on social media platforms.

While the concept that reputational damage and transgressions last forever online, the flipside of that is the opportunity to create false or fantasy impressions of who we are, constructing and reconstructing identities using algorithms that ‘feed’ selective highlights of our lives to the people that we know and to complete strangers – highlights that we have filtered, primed and edited to present the best or optimal version of ourselves.

Into this context comes Anna, a character unlike any other and gratifyingly novel in the way that female protagonists have been written. Anna deliberately builds an identity for herself that moves her into the position of social influencer, using art primarily as the tool to generate cache that in turn leads to real life kudos as she transforms her digital profile. First she lands a magazine job and then ‘it girl’ / socialite status, opening up a plethora of parties, openings and elite gatherings that further build and sustain her reputation. When she meets tech boom millionaire Ariel who created an elite dating app, the beginnings of a modern New York fairy tale are in place.

But writer Joseph Charlton has something far savvier and more interesting to say, because despite Anna’s very public and performative lifestyle, she remains a deeply mysterious and unpredicatable force in the play. Based on a true story, a traditional gold-digger narrative would have been the predictable trajectory of Anna X, yet, proving truth is stranger than fiction, Charlton’s play instead pairs two characters with unstinting access to a rarefied world who are not only conversant with the art of digital platforms but fundamentally employed by or tied to them in their daily lives. Neither is, therefore, dependent on the other to ‘access’ these physical or technological spaces.

Yet, Anna is entirely devoted to the moment, not obviously for money or even the easy gratification of Instagram likes, but for the real albeit fleeting experiences of these events. What makes her so fascinating is the intangible contrast between the fact of her online presence and its real, evidential reality, and the elusiveness of her personality, the refusal to be defined by the massing of information about her. To present a female character in this way with no clearly expressed wants or needs is fascinatingly unusual, her enigmatic qualities and contradictions holding your attention throughout this 80-minute play.

That women on stage are so often defined by love, family or materiality makes Anna so appealing and while Charlton has created this very selective, monied cultural existence, Anna seems never to truly belong to it, always operating at a layer removed. Yet she is still fundamental to it and almost the fulcrum around which everything else is held in balance. She is there but not there, the epicentre of it all yet part of something larger to which she too is drawn but not invested.

To enhance the discomposing effect of his lead character, Charlton does two key things within the play’s structure that continually disrupt the narrative and prevents the audience from identifying too closely or empathising with Anna. The first is to layer the time lines, wrapping present day events in reminiscences and different degrees of memory while using the actors to play a variety of other characters to flesh-out their grounding in New York and the pivotal conversations they have. At all times, Charlton remains firmly in control of the flow, safely navigating the audience through the myriad of information to wherever her left Anna and Ariel.

The two characters frequently break from the scene they are in and are taken backwards in time to explain how they got to this moment or to provide useful context for the viewer. And Charlton chooses to do this at unusual moments in the midst of conversation, so rather than present a linear narrative, he offers up puzzle pieces which the audience must fit together. The effect is enjoyably alienating, allowing us just enough time to peak our interesting in the connection between Anna and Ariel but interrupting their duologues so we don’t become too attached to them.

Charlton’s second technique effectively and thematically enhances the play’s core identity debates by allowing both individuals to tell their version of the story. They break scene to talk directly to the audience and like their social media feeds, there is a feeling of curation to what we are told, each giving us the part of the story they choose to share and want us to hear. Notably, Ariel tends to reflect more on Anna as a personality and an experience than she does on him, but this framing of characters as both narrators and commentators of as well as players in their own lives feels particularly appropriate. At the culmination of this engaging story Charlton’s storytelling approach chimes perfectly with its outcomes as the whirl of parties, dates, meetings and the vibrancy of the New York art and social scene is shown to be superficial and considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Visually, Anna X is exciting and Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden’s video-based design suits the tone and pace of Charlton’s narrative exactly, helping to create tens of locations sailing by as rapidly as scrolling through Instagram, referencing the screen-based nature of this lifestyle but giving a tangible sense of buzz, people and energy in a two-character play set in a crowded and constantly moving cityscape. It is an integral part of the action, constructed from cubes that form a flat video wall with protruding or projected sections to create a multifunctional set that the characters can use as seats, tables or raised platforms.

Not the first time a digital set has been used, but the quality of the images here can be deceptively immersive, creating vivid impressions of grotty New York alleyways behind a lively club, the twinkling skyline view from an expensive apartment or its cunningly implied chic interior as actors appear to sit on sofas emblazoned beneath them. There is a technical precision to it and a genuine thoughtfulness about the play’s themes and the illusion of the screen-based surface which is very pleasing.

For Emma Corrin who plays Anna, and Nabhaan Rizwan who is Ariel, there are interesting dimensions to work with, not quite playing their characters as they are but as real life projections of their digital personas in which the person almost becomes an avatar of themselves. Corrin has the harder job – one she succeeds in admirably – having to convey the unreadable woman who is at once open to all experiences, almost chaotically so, but at the same time entirely shut off from emotional connections or really any sense of herself in the past or future. There is a nuance here though and while the hedonism and detachment is fun, Corrin explores Anna’s discomfort when Ariel gets too close, a desire to flee muddied by her own irrepressible need for human interaction and consistency. She is mysterious but not monstrous.

Ariel by contrast is a far more expressive character, a tech entrepreneur inventing ways to bring people together and perplexed by his inability to shake the impression that Anna makes on him. Rizwan gives Ariel a neediness he didn’t realise he had, chasing the shadow of a girl through the New York social scene, all too willing to believe he is seeing her true self – for someone running an online dating service where digital personas are shallow, the irony appears to escape him. But, Ariel also enjoys the accouterments of wealth and the freedom it gives him to access elite spaces. It comforts his ego to believe Anna is equally wealthy because it overcomes a barrier he seems to encounter in the rest of his life, putting them on an equal footing. Rizwan’s Ariel is deluded perhaps, but no more so than anyone else looking for love and Anna is hardly a benchmark of normality.

Based on a true story, Charlton’s play which received a try-out at the Vault Festival, makes a fierce West End debut as part of the Re:Emerge Season, and whether or not you know the outcome, the exploration of identity constructs and the medium through which they are expressed is hugely engaging. Seen in tandem with productions like Cruise and Public Domain that also debuted in major theatres, Anna X is a fitting end to a trilogy of works that, taken as a whole, ask who gets to tell their stories and the scale of the platform they are given to do it.

Anna X runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 4 August with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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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