Uncle Vanya, first impressions [potentially spoilers for the general plot of the play and also for some features of the adaptation] #richardarmitage

So, I made it here after a lot of tsuris on the home front. I actually don’t like watching previews, but this was the only week that worked with my spring teaching schedule. And it was definitely worth it. Armitage fans who are on the fence will want to see this piece; maybe more so that Love, Love, Love, as the play is much better constructed. It doesn’t have the visceral immediacy of The Crucible — but the material is also strikingly different and this play is not about life and death. It was really nice of him to come out so quickly — as I’m sure he had notes from the director to take to heart. I’m sure other people can write better about that than I. My phone camera isn’t that great, although I did take a few pictures. But this is going to be bullet points, and there will be more from the first two acts (before the interval) than from the second two (partially because I found act III truly disturbing and partly because I did go out for a beer afterwards). I also should say — for his last two plays I knew a lot both about the plays and the subject material. That is not the case of this play — my knowledge is rudimentary, so I will just stay mostly out of that discussion. Hopefully I will get to write more about that stuff later on. But you do not need to know what happened in St Petersburg in 1905 to enjoy this play, and I honestly think it could have been set in East Prussia without substantial changes (or maybe even Ireland, although it was somewhat more modernized by then). On the one hand, they refrained from cheesy Russian accents (but on the other, they apparently didn’t think to look up the pronunciations of the actual place names in the play. Maletskoye and Thüringen, I’m looking at you.) I also think they did not do a good job communicating the difference between addressing someone with a nickname vs their name a patronymic (what the difference is between calling someone Vanya and calling them Ivan Petrovich — if I hadn’t know that ahead of time, this play would not have taught me.)

As side issues: Note that there was less legroom in this seat than there was on my flight over. Also, quick wave and thanks to SueBC for nudging me to get my vision corrected in time to wear new glasses to this performance.

The most initially striking thing about the play is the set. It’s gorgeous. I thought instantly, “I want to live on that set” and I heard a few sighs. Hopefully there will be some pictures of it soon. There are parts of it that are hard to see depending on where you are seated in the theatre, so if you go more than once, vary your perspective a little. I saw this performance from E17 (just outside the center of the stalls), and I would recommend not sitting closer to the stage than this unless you’re very tall as the seating rake puts you below the stage level in at least the first three rows. Essentially you’re in the conservatory of a run-down estate, with a big window at stage right with light falling through the window and vines — which changes tone as the season passes. If you sit toward stage left, you can see things that happen outside the conservatory window, which you only hear if you are seated at stage right. Conversely, if you sit on stage right you can see Armitage observing a crucial scene, which was interesting to watch. The men are wearing late-19th-century bourgeois dress; the women vary from traditional costume to modern dress to pants. Nothing about this production seems historically slavish.

Second, of course, for the Armitage fan — Armitage is stunningly sexy. To me this is perfect “normal Armitage,” great longish hair, beard, what I think is a healthy weight without being overly chiseled. He does take his shirt off (which you see a lot of less of if you’re seated at stage right). He has a nice suit on — boots, slacks, shirt, vest — and then at times he has a coat, a scarf; in the last scene he gets riding boots. The first scene is supposed to suggest that he’s going to seed a bit, but the signs of this on Armitage’s body and costume itself are very, very subtle. To answer the questions about “has he gained weight” I would say, “yes, a little, but it’s quite attractive.”

We really get to see a wide range of the RA gestural canon here although not as much anger as in The Crucible. Singing, dancing, drunkenness, a kiss, some true physicality and movement, he blows a raspberry at one point — and in general, more legit comedy than I’ve ever seen from him (LLL was more satirical). This is a funny play but it lurches back and forth between drama and humor, sometimes alarmingly (more about this below). We have a decent opportunity to observe him reacting to the other characters and I love this and have missed it (it was something I loved about Spooks).

There are some unforgettable Armitage moments — for example, Astrov gasping in despair in the scene change from Act I to Act II. His repeated inability to leave his memories of a patient he lost. How Astrov talks about the forest and the way forestry changes the world (one suspects this is something Armitage feels deeply, but it’s also an ironic moment in the play just because all of characters are trapped in this world they are not allowed to change). Some people would add “what he does after he takes his shirt off” (I could not see this last night and hope they don’t edit it out of the play before I can.

For a play this short there are a lot of things in it — and I think many of these things will be seen quite differently by different spectators, which means its portrayal of the themes is well balanced and the actors are largely in productive equilibrium with each other. I felt that the first half was strong, thought-provoking, musingly pensive but without being heavy — but that the third act (the first half of the second half) was actively disturbing at times, even monstrous. One feature of this production is that whenever the action moves so that it’s just on the brink of provoking a truly strong reaction, it pulls back into a joke. I had a hard time with this, particularly in Act III; I was angrier at some of the stuff that was happening than the play seemed to be and I needed a bit more time. OTOH that was probably part of their intention. The comedy was more brutal precisely because of the sharpness and effectiveness of its interjection (Toby Jones was especially good at this, I thought). This audience was quite live and ready to be entertained. But it was clear that there were things that the women in the audience were not laughing at with much energy.

In the interest of not spoiling all the scenes, I won’t get into detail here (or at least not at this point), but there is a point in the play where Astrov is expressing his desire for Yelena and I found myself thinking, despite all Astrov’s sensitivity, he still has points of serious monstrosity. Someone in the stage door line with me remarked that she appreciated how much agency this production gave the women, and I agree with that on some level, but I was still really bothered. (This scene must be hard to play — hard to get the point across.)

And there were quite a few themes in the play that impressed me similarly, i.e., that really emphasized the cruel underbelly of this world amid the gently decaying sunlight and aesthetic (I loved the disintegrating book shelf as an element of set design). I’m thinking of Yelena and Serebryakov’s discussions of their desires and plans (oh, man, did I see myself in some things she was saying and was angered by the things Alexandre says), but also of Sonya’s unrestrained attraction to Astrov. Or of Grandmaman’s devotion to “the woman question” and the brutal ways in which discusses it and in which she is treated by the other characters. On the whole I felt like Aimee Lee Wood was the only weak link in this cast — I just don’t buy that much naivete in a world where women knew exactly what they were worth to men, and it is hard to be sympathetic to someone like that at all — but I also thought a lot about the whole question of how people with a crush relate to the object of the crush while watching her act. (Not that that is a theme in my life or anything.) I don’t think this play ends really well, but I also don’t think Wood did that final speech justice. I’ll be looking for more in future — the energy decays quite a bit in Act IV of this play.

Toby Jones as Vanya also has a few quite cruel moments that balance out the foolish, ironic speech that predominates. I didn’t know quite what to think of him; there are many points at which he is not likable, just as there are at least a few points at which Astrov loses my sympathy. Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena is also very strong and she effectively communicates the sources of her own despair. She has a good chemistry with Armitage and excellent tension with Ciaran Hinds (here, as usually, a sort of non-presence for me). Peter Wight and Anna-Calder Marshall are deft as mostly comic characters. In a few of the comic scenes the strong proportional discrepancy between Jones and Armitage adds to the comedy.

Someone said to me afterwards that Armitage appears disproportionately large to the audience, and I agree although I’m not sure why. I know there are people who are left cold by him, but I still feel like I at least can’t look away from him when he’s on stage. He still has my whole attention.

In any case: I feel like in some ways this was the perfect role for Armitage — Astrov’s repeated refrains about his feelings, his inability to feel and so on struck deeply with me (although I think it’s not quite about being totally unable to feel, or at least it’s more complex than that), as did the scene with him showing Yelena the maps he’d been drawing. The play does make you wonder if there’s any point at all to human activity and while that originally referred specifically to the social layer Chekhov was writing about, it successful becomes a moving, more general point about work in the hands of this company.

The applause at this presentation was strong but not thunderous. About half the house stood up afterwards. The cast did a shared curtain call. The gauze curtain falling on a table with a live candle was a late jolt (honestly the whole theatre feels like a claustrophobic fire trap).

I’m sure I’ll have more to say. [If we’re in the same time zone and you left me a message tonight I haven’t answered it for fear of waking you up.]

~ by Servetus on January 15, 2020.

31 Responses to “Uncle Vanya, first impressions [potentially spoilers for the general plot of the play and also for some features of the adaptation] #richardarmitage”

  1. Glad you were able to make it over! Thanks for the review. Looking forward to more analysis. How was the stage door?

    Liked by 4 people

    • It was very relaxed; there were barriers there but no one had bothered to put them up. He seemed way less tired than at either The Crucible or Love Love Love; he was really charming. There’s no really great way out of that theatre from the stalls, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Huge thanks for sharing your thoughts, especially at such a late hour!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am beyond jealous that you made it to play. But of course happy for you. Thank you for your usual well considered analysis. Are you going multiple times? Have fun!

    Liked by 2 people

    • between dad, the threat of a war with Iran, and the snowstorm in Chicago I kind of didn’t believe I was coming either. I’ll see several more shows while I am here.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. So happy you were able to get out there to see the preview. Your reviews are much appreciated. Really great impressions. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Great you were able to make it! And thousand thanks for your review. Was a nice surprise to wake up with.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. So glad to you have been able to come over and we get your perspective on everything. How many times are you able to see it?

    I so wanted to go last night but am glad I didn’t book when they first came out as I had surgery last week and would not have been able to attend. My family have very kindly got me tickets but I don’t get to see it until April and I really want to see it before then. I might have to do a matinee one day.

    Enjoy your time here xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the play. I do wish to watch him someday in a live theater. Hope you enjoy your time there!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been dying to read feedback on the play — thank you so very much for your detailed comments. Now, I’m more excited than ever to see it (and Armitage)!
    I’ll be in London from Feb.18 and trying to book tickets. I think I read Stalls is the best seating. Can you tell me for sure? I had the most awful seats for the Crucible, and would not want that to happen again.


    • If you are in the stalls, I would go for rows after D (say maybe D to H) and as close to the center as possible. I’ve got a front row dress circle seat tonight and can tell you more after that. I think I would try to avoid buying a ticket in the uppermost two levels. Also, my suspicion is that a seat further back in the center of the stalls would be better than a side seat in some of the front-most rows. The very front-most rows (A, B, C) will position you almost under the actors.


  9. I’m so pleased you got here, you deserve this. Thanks for your thoughts, they have made me look forward to seeing RA and the play even more, I am seated on E9 so not far from your seat yesterday.


  10. 🙂 Quelle bonne surprise, je suis heureuse pour vous. Ayez une très bonne semaine et profitez en au maximum! Vos commentaires donnent vraiment envie de participer, à cette expérience rapidement. J’attends avec impatience vos commentaires, sur la pièce vue de plus haut, au niveau des emplacements du “dress circle”. Have a nice journey!


  11. Simultaneously envious and happy for you. So glad that you managed to get away. I read your review with interest, as I am not familiar with this play.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for the wave from across the pond! [waves back] I’m so glad you were able to go and that the play and Armitage were worth it. As I can’t go myself, I really appreciate your detailed impressions so that I can experience it vicariously. I’m trying to imagine Armitage’s costume. I assume not like the promo pictures? But boots! And riding boots!

    It sounds like Armitage really gets to go through a range of emotions — and comedy, too! I love watching him react to others.

    I’m looking forward to reading more as you watch the play from different perspectives. (I really should read the play, too.)


  13. I was at D16. You were right behind me! I wonder what’s the best seat to pick next time.


  14. Thank you for your writing your review of the play, a play I will not see as a trip to NZ looms in my future…I appreciate your thoughts and impressions of the cast, especially The Armitage….I know he feel most comfy on the stage and I guess it shows…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, he’s definitely comfortable. There’s one point where Armitage is chasing Jones on the stage and I thought both times, wow, that looks dangerous, also because it would be easy for Armitage to hurt Jones, their size difference is so striking, but he does it perfectly.


  15. I’m so glad you were able to make it!
    Thanks for thr first impressions, makes me more curious than ever to see this.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. […] has already been to 3 performances of Uncle Vanya, she wrote about them here, here and here. Guylty has written about stage door experiences here and here. There has been some […]


  17. […] had been clear to me at the end of 2019, when I decided to go to London and we had a huge scuffle to find a way for me to leave, that HL was at the limit of his capacity to take care of dad. So there wasn’t going to be […]


  18. […] Uncle Vanya, first impressions [potentially spoilers for the general plot of the play and also for s…. Description of the first preview of Uncle Vanya, which I felt privileged to see at the time […]


  19. […] A year ago today. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: