Interesting interview with Toby Jones

•January 21, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Here.

Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

•January 20, 2020 • 2 Comments

Cultural Capital

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…

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Uncle Vanya, fifth and sixth impressions [could include spoilers] #richardarmitage

•January 19, 2020 • 21 Comments

I have fewer notes today for various reasons (less was new to me, I was more contemplative as this was my last day, I ended up in a few conversations). Also I need to get my stuff together to fly.

14:30 matinee

I was seated in E8 stalls — great seat. I would say all in all the sweet spot of this theatre is probably in rows E through J in the center; second choice would be between first four rows in the center and first row of dress circle.

I felt this was a stronger performance than the evening show. However, I also would say this show really doesn’t bear watching twice in a day if you have other opportunities for a second watch and want to see it again. My mind was unpleasantly swirling at the end.

Trivia: I don’t think I’ve mentioned that there are two jokes right at the beginning that almost appear to be designed for Armitage fans. One is about the beard. Definitely warms up the in-crowd audience. I won’t spoil them now but they should be obvious from the script, when it comes out. In Act II, Sonia seems to have changed how she makes Astrov’s sandwich. Initially she gave him two thick pieces of bread with the crust on; now she seems to be removing the crust to make it easier for him to speak through the crumbs.

A new fave moment of mine that emerged most fully today: in Act II, during the drunken singing, they sing a song that goes “No bed for the master / The moon (or “no moon”) in the sky / My love, will you open the door?” I thought this was a Russian song but if it is I haven’t identified in. It certainly sounds Russian. Anyway, today during the second line, Armitage gestured at his own rear end (and escalated that a bit more obviously in the evening show). I can imagine this being escalated almost indefinitely — a very fruitful moment.

The main theme that seems to dominate my notes is the question of what the trajectory of Astrov’s reaction to Yelena is. Their chief physical interactions (abortive kiss in Act III, farewell and embrace in Act IV) have changed quite a bit even in the six shows I’ve seen. It seems to have something to do with how much tension they manage to build up before they get to Act III. Astrov’s first approach to her is always quite nasty — chastising her for dragging him out to see her husband, who doesn’t want Astrov’s care. He also spends a lot of time looking at her while he thinks she’s not noticing (and vice versa, although she spends quite a bit less time on this). There’s also a quite funny moment in Act I when Vanya, Astrov, and Telegin are all looking her up and down at the same time from three different perspectives. Anyway, the Act III abortive kiss in this show was the most emotionally so far. From where I was seated, I got a glimpse of Astrov’s face just as he was about to push himself on her. There was just a second of really intense bloodlust. I don’t know how to describe it but I have not seen that expression on his face before in a romantic situation. It was a kind of “I will have this” mood. This enouncter isn’t quite an assault, as he eventually lets her bend her head away — but it’s the kind of kiss that might have been considered tempestuous even a decade ago. It’s clear that Yelena doesn’t want it and Astrov can’t hear her. I wish I could watch this about ten more times to see how they do it.

My other macro insight about this show was that I really started to dislike Vanya. I kind of felt like he was just manipulating everyone to get what he wanted; i.e., the departure of the professor. It’s not that simple, as he doesn’t seem to be anticipating the “business proposal” of Act III, but Toby Jones seemed really manipulative today in the role — doing whatever he could (even in the scenes with Yelena) to make everyone angrier. (To some extent this perception was heightened by a conversation I overheard in the later show, where a couple was discussing who the real antagonist of this play is.)

Overheard in the interval: “Betrayal was good, but this is SO much deeper and better.” I’ve never seen Betrayal, but eat your heart out anyway, Hiddles.

There were fans lined up at the stage door and I know that Ciaran Hinds appeared for fans, but I didn’t wait around to see more.

After the show I was able to speak to Rosalind Eleazar (Yelena in the play) in the bar very briefly (obviously she was tired and I didn’t want to risk preventing her from recharging) — will leave this for now as I want to write about how women’s issues fell out for me in this play. Anyway, she was quite nice and I suspect, given the attention for the three male leads and Aimee Lou Wood (who is in some kind of hit tv show) she is under-appreciated. Yet she is the character with whom I as watcher identified the most. (Not Astrov, which is a bit surprising to me).

19:30

I was in the front row of the dress circle, which I preferred slightly less to the aisle seat in that section that I’d had earlier, mainly due to leg room issues.

On the whole, I felt this performance had somewhat less pep to it (not surprising as they’d already been through it during the day). I was also sadder — realizing that this was the last time I’ll see Armitage performing in the flesh for who knows how long. He has such presence that even if I’d tired of this play (and I don’t think I could watch this every day), I’d still want to come to follow him around on the stage with my eyes. I’d want to watch him move the way Astrov seems to want to watch Yelena move. (Which isn’t an especially reassuring insight about myself, I’m afraid)

Two things I want to note for future reference and maybe some thought on the way home — first, to what extent should we take the idealistic but self-pitying Astrov seriously? I had the impression tonight that Armitage was moving more toward sarcasm at certain moments (but that may be my own overload with this play — even if I lived here I’d have to take a day off at this point). In particular, it’s hard for me to reconcile his repetition of the insight that in a century they will be slumbering and out of pain with his relatively scientific and political approach to life. Why does he have to keep reassuring himself?

Second, and in connection with this: I realize that key to accepting Armitage’s performance — and not seeing Astrov as someone who’s constantly playing for sympathy — is seeing Astrov as a man in the iron grip of this one traumatic memory about the boy who died under chloroform after the railroad accident. For me, anyway, this works better if Astrov seems to be struggling more generally — i.e., that the character is less pleasant. It’s not that he needs to be more in the grip of alcohol that he is — but he maybe needs to be a bit rougher on the edges, a bit more openly impatient? I felt that this didn’t work especially well for Armitage in the first performances that I saw, but that it got better in the last two, i.e., that I didn’t find myself thinking Astrov was being melodramatic when talking about the accident. It’s interesting to me that Astrov is the only man who follows the manners about standing in the presence of a lady and I felt that something could be done there; one’s execution of manners often reveals the extent to which one feels integrated or separated from the society around one. I also felt that there could be something different (or more?) around the offering of alcohol, his refusals (or acceptances), and the fact that he seems not to be eating.

There was a long stage door line and a very vocally aggressive security person. Armitage again faked out the autograph salesmen and seemed to have time to give almost everyone something. You could tell he was a bit tireder because he returned to his characteristic “bless you” response to compliments in a lot of cases. I think I would suggest, if the stage door experience is really important to you, to try to go on a week night that doesn’t have a matinee performance.

So that’s it for me from London. Lots on my mind, but I need to get home. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a bit as the semester starts Monday and I hear there were seven inches of snow yesterday. Thanks for reading.

[am not watching]

•January 18, 2020 • 3 Comments

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Uncle Vanya, fourth impressions [could include spoilers] #richardarmitage

•January 18, 2020 • 3 Comments

[and yes, I realize we’re now moving into Servetus’ obsessive mode, so I apologize for that. I’ll be home in a few days]

Tonight I was seated in stalls E 13 and this was practically the perfect seat, certainly best yet, although someone tall was seated in front of me and I really started to get irritated with the rake at the front of the stalls.

I think that as a play the best performance was still the first one (even if I didn’t know how I felt about the jerkiness of that tempo, the lurching back and forth between humor and pathos which it seems now was maybe created or facilitated by the quite live audience). This was the one that moved the most, though, maybe because I was feeling somewhat emotional before I went into it. All in all I really don’t know how to feel about this play. It’s a bit weird. In any case, although there have been at most minor changes, Armitage is certainly right that it’s felt like a new show every night.

There are two things I can point to that were really effective tonight — the tension at the beginning (Astrov is annoyed at having waited so long) was up even a tick more than the previous night and as a result the transition to the statement that is supposed to establish Astrov’s state of mind (that a patient of his died under chloroform) worked exceptionally well, better than I’ve seen. I think this is because the emotion seems more organic, and not just coming out of nowhere (as the text itself implies). Maybe it’s more that Astrov’s emotions are lurking closer to the surface than he realizes. Anyway, I really liked the trajectory this time, it seemed less melodramatic than it has on early evenings, and it fit better with the register of his voice where it is now. It also made Astrov somewhat more sympathetic.

Which is canceled out by the next thing I want to say, which is that there was way more than a tick more palpable tension between Astrov and Yelena tonight than there has been in the previous three shows. This works better because (a) Astrov is more emotional over against Yelena and (b) she is more exasperated by his disconnect with reality. Perhaps it’s worth saying that I suspect this is a scene that plays really differently for audiences now than it did in 1899 or any time since until relatively recently. In any case, it was really clear tonight that she doesn’t want or expect to be kissed and that his willful, almost automatic rolling over or her will is creepy. They are on the floor looking at maps, and then they do this dance (there’s no other way to put it) to get to the conversation about Sonia, and then to the kiss — Armitage is up and down repeatedly, he kneels, he dashes upstage, he surrounds her — there’s a lot of movement there. The previous nights she’s seemed a bit ambivalent but she was not tonight and it was one of the weirder kisses I’ve seen him do. She wasn’t struggling so much as avoiding but he was clearly pursuing (while restraining himself — I’m guessing he must have to do this a lot). Intriguing to watch. I wonder how Rosalind Eleazar feels about it.

I just don’t like Aimee Lou Wood as Sonia at all, although she’s better when she uses her comic talents. (However, if she would follow that strand consistently all the way through her closing monologue, it would make the whole fourth act seem ironic, so it wouldn’t work.) That said, there was so much more tension in Act III and particularly in Act IV this time that I was more sympathetic to the ending of the play than I have been so far, even if that refrain of “we will rest” makes me feel aggressive and bothered. Also I found myself thinking that Vanya was a jerk and he just manipulated everyone into exactly what he wanted.

I was more moved than I have been by these people’s predicament, maybe because I realized after writing the previous post how much the prospect of nothing every changing is weighing on my mind (as well as the fear that a manipulative Vanya will make that arrangement, either in my personal life or in U.S. politics).

The more I’ve enjoyed the play, the less I enjoy the stage door spectacle, but Armitage really seems to have turned a corner on this. He bounced out there, immediately went to the end of the line, and was really talkative and forthcoming. Everyone who wanted one got a selfie. He was cheerful and responsive.

Overheard in the interval: “Richard Armitage — he’s at the top, he’s obviously meant to be famous. I just love him in this role! But he doesn’t ring any bells. Who is he?”

From Astrov to Armitagemania. I felt so positive about this that it doesn’t even bother me that I dropped my interval notes somewhere. Well, it kinda doesn’t bother me. [snorts]

Vanya interval

•January 17, 2020 • 17 Comments

[this is about me and what is important about the play to me, so feel to scroll on by if you’re more interested in Armitage or the play without reference to my state of mind]

I’m halfway through — three shows seen, three more to see. American Airlines has started to bombard me with emails castigating me for the imprudence of daring to book a flight through O’Hare Airport in January. I didn’t really have plans for this trip beyond the play (I’ve been teaching an online class, and our next term starts Monday morning — whether or not the weather allows me to make it home). I tried to get the Conor McPherson script (it’s been delayed) and I wanted to get some Elton John stamps (none of the post offices I visited had them, so I will get some off the website). I bought the tackiest souvenir ever (a cheap umbrella with the UK flag on it) and actually used it last night. I consumed a full English breakfast three of the four days I’ve been here so far. I ate at one restaurant favorite and discovered a few new ones, one at the generous invitation of a friend. As always when I visit, my Coke consumption fell and my water consumption rose. I didn’t go many places but I walked everywhere I went.

It’s been a great week.

Apart from the expense, I could get used to this: a cooked breakfast every morning that someone else makes, at my desk during the day, Richard Armitage on the stage every evening. It’s been a nice week largely free from worries: about dad, about myself, about the future. About the US political situation. It’s perhaps not surprising that those concerns are starting to creep back, though, and maybe not least because of this play.

There’s been a weird coincidence over the years between my fundamental questions and milestones of Armitage’s work, to wit:

  • N&S penetrating my awareness at the point when I was having problems with working too much
  • Then Spooks — a series about betrayals, as I was dealing with that issue myself at work
  • Guy of Gisborne — who got me to blog
  • Then Strike Back — really the point at which I joined the fandom — a show about having to assert your status to people who should know better
  • The Hobbit — films with a main character driven to ruin by his inability to abandon a quest that was ultimately foiled for him by his own weaknesses
  • The Cruciblea life changing experience for me as spectator
  • Hannibal — a bunch of messages about self-esteem that really struck me, but which I didn’t have the fortitude to pursue given both the medium and my own fragility (and maybe still don’t)

And of course, there have been other brief moments in projects I liked less well, that underlined things for me that seem important to him (stuff like “be okay with who you are,” which comes up in Sparkhouse, Moving On, Pilgrimage, and even Captain America). So for those people who wonder why I continue to have a crush on Richard Armitage when I don’t even always seem to like him on a day to day basis, it’s trajectory issues like this. I have always identified with the person I understand him to be and the choices I’ve seen him making as much as I have found him attractive (although that was certainly not irrelevant).

So I wonder if the theme here — and the reason I was supposed to see this play just now — was the emphasis in Astrov’s lines on “not having any feelings,” “not having anything to look forward to” or perhaps more accurately, “just when you don’t need them, all those feelings come back.” On some level, most of the characters in this play are hypocritical and that’s true of Astrov as well: it’s clear there are feelings he has no problem feeling (for the forest, for Yelena). Maybe it’s just that they are not the feelings he is supposed to feel, or that as feelings, they make him hurt as much as anything else.

I can identify, both with the emptiness (in my case filled mostly by anxiety) and with the reaction that feelings come when you don’t want them (in my case, anger).

I was as surprised as anyone that I got here. I did a good job (with the help of my dementia coach) of setting myself up by buying the tickets and making hotel and plane reservations — primarily because I needed some hope at the time. But the chore of finding substitute care for dad was one of the worst ordeals of my life (and in turn has made me dread how much worse all of this could get). I made an arrangement for someone to come and stay with him while I was gone — but when the first person fell through and the substitute arrangement was going to be six different people, I knew that would not fly. I asked my uncle, whose wife had just had a knee replacement, after which they both had the horrible awful flu. I mentioned it to my brother but it was not possible. The only option was going to be respite care (this is an option where someone goes to assisted living for a week), but dad was opposed.

I don’t just mean he didn’t want to go, I mean he did everything he could to make my life impossible for days and days: accusations (“you’re trying to piss away my money”), refusals to cooperate with long-standing plans including dental appointments (“you don’t care if I die”), refusals to eat food he would normally eat. He told me I could not leave him if he could not stay at home alone and everyone — the doctors, the attorney, my brother, me, the GCM — agrees he can’t stay home by himself. In the end, he called my uncle, whom he told that I was planning to sign him into assisted living and leave him there. My uncle — who is 83 and whose wife is 87 — capitulated and I drove dad there on Saturday morning, but not without the now expected knock down, dragout fight about the route I chose to get to the back of beyond. I was in tears. He really didn’t care. I don’t know how much of it is calculated on his part or comes from powerlessness or cluelessness or if he enjoys this or has just decided he’s going to make me miserable if I leave him or or or or. In the end I was allowed to leave him but not without punishment and I assume there will be more punishment when I get home for having done so.

Not only will there be this week to atone for but also, I’m teaching basically a full time schedule this spring (at two different universities — this was why if I came to London it had to be this week, because the respective spring breaks don’t coincide) and so there is going to be, beginning next week, a second senior helper (our first one doesn’t have any more additional hours). Because something else I discovered once dad began to put up with the first senior helper was that my mind does actually still work if I can get away from the dementia dance for a few hours and just concentrate. And because my own increasingly dead affect dissipates somewhat when I can accomplish something (like Astrov with his forests).

So I’m worried: about dad, about what we might do to each other if he stays at home, about what we might do to each other if he doesn’t, about work, about how to live my life, and to some extent, about the fact that there’s always a tendency to regress when one returns to an old setting (and I have only been away for a week). I’m going to do some mindfulness exercises to try to deal with the anxiety and to enhance my ability to concentrate. It’s also clear that I’m going to have to be able to get away from dad more regularly and affordably (not just one week on another continent every eighteen months) and that this is going to have to be the exchange for him living at home with me. This may be the hardest battle I’ve ever fought with a family member and it’s not going to help that dad is hardly rational.

I don’t think — unfortunately — that Vanya really offers a solution to me. Astrov seems to be urging others to take comfort in the afterlife. Sonia is interested in committing to work (and, in fact, I’ve been following the Sonia solution up till now, and my affect is disintegrating, piece by piece). I’m going to need something else as committing myself to pursuing my values over “endless days” is definitely not working, and I can’t wait for wholeness until I die. I don’t know what it is. But the play’s been an important reminder to look and look harder.

And I had my first new Armitage fantasy since the stroke. It was a relief, a sign, and way past comforting. Maybe even inspiring.

Remember how I said Richard Armitage is insanely sexy in this play?

•January 17, 2020 • 10 Comments

 

 

 

Beginning of Act I, when Nana and Astrov are discussing whether he’s changed

 

 

Enter a caption

 

Act II, drunken scene

Act III — after the official drunken scene, encounter between Astrov and Sonia (at the end of this she will obliquely admit that she’s interested in him)

Act III — I think Astrov is promising Sonia not to drink anymore

Act II (I think) this is Astrov after Sonia’s asked if she had a sister, if he could love the sister, and he says more or less that he couldn’t do anything.

 

Act III, Astrov overhears Yelena’s soliloquy

Act IV — Astrov reassures Vanya that they will all enjoy a pleasant hereafter

 
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