A response to (not a review of) the Rickson / McPherson Uncle Vanya

Mostly, some things I want to get down before the reviews come out and make me look at things differently. Not terribly coherent; make of them what you will. I’m less confident than usual of what I’m thinking, although (somewhat unusually) very confident in what I am feeling. Two factors create this problem. First (and by a combination of intention and sheer busy-ness) my knowledge of the original play and its context were rudimentary when I saw this play’s first six previews, so I was viewing the material through my own context first, rather than through that of the play, and that impression has persisted. Secondly, the experience of watching Richard Armitage on stage has catapulted my crush back into an acute phase, and I’m experiencing manifestations of attraction that I haven’t felt since the Cybersmile nonsense disrupted my fantasy life in 2015. I’m suddenly much more smitten than I was even in 2014, when I saw Armitage live on stage for the first time in The Crucible — to the point that it’s very hard for me to notice, let alone evaluate, the other male performances. I’m very surprised; I half thought this trip to London might be for the swan song of this crush, in part because I did not sense my usual obsession with preparation to see a play. Instead it’s the opposite and I suddenly find myself with thoughts of the kind I shared freely even six years ago but which now leave me tongue-tied and shy. So we’ll see how this goes.

That the play is well made is clear within seconds of the curtain rising — a beautiful, decaying set, deftly lit; subtle and poignant music and sound design. It is also better rehearsed than either of the two previous plays of Armitage’s I’ve seen — by which I mean that one never sees any holes in the facade of the play or the actors (this was occasionally a problem in The Crucible; it must have been hard to sustain such a strenuous, long performance). The movement is effective — both in terms of blocking that constantly draws the viewer back to the center of the stage, and how the characters themselves move — and the trance-like scene changes push the viewer back into a contemplative transition every time a scene ends. The costumes are simple but contribute well to the characters and the piece. As I say, I can’t really evaluate either Jones or Hinds and I must leave their evaluation in the hands of others. I will say that movement, blocking, and acting come together convincingly in the part of Act III involving the discussion of the disposal of the estate and it’s like watching an increasingly unsettling and finally frightening dance — an impression due primarily to the constantly escalating tension between Vanya and the Professor. It feels like this production, with its open acknowledgement of bitter, black humor and social satire, could have done better for Sonya / Aimee Lou Wood, who just doesn’t fit with the other characters / actors, and who seems to flit awkwardly and confusingly between physical comedy and pietistic sermonizing. In the end, I can’t read her closing speech as I suspect it was originally intended, as a philosophical statement; instead, she (and everyone else who was manipulated by Vanya beginning in Act III) seems to be preaching the propaganda that justifies his own desires. Why does she say he’s never seen happiness in this life, when the end of the play gives him exactly what he wants — the right to keep on as he always has been? The right to be impractical while proclaiming his martyrdom?

(boy, did that hit a nerve)

Without the play’s performance tradition in my background, it’s hard for me to interpret it, and I suspect (not only on the matter of whether Vanya deserves any sympathy) there are many points on which I’m not seeing it as either Chekhov (or for that matter, Rickson / McPherson) intended me to.

But first, to Armitage as Astrov — once again I feel that we’re in the situation of the actor making more of a role than the play actually foresees for him. Perhaps this is why he isn’t given a monologue, because he already draws more attention than he might have. Or perhaps it’s that his mere presence in these scenes requires so much self-justification that we are deemed not to need more. Astrov does nothing but talk about why he’s there, again and again. I could watch this forever. We’ve observed before that Armitage is remarkably consistent and that his performances are better when other actors are having good nights themselves, as if he feeds off the ensemble for energy.

But feed he does — and in an elemental way. Ben Brantley described him as a (n atypically) earthy Proctor, and in Astrov, Armitage again finds something that I’m guessing is unexpected in the character. Living in the grips of a traumatic memory, suffering in the atmosphere of his stifling milieu but also in a vocation whose demands he can’t seem to live up to and in an ecosystem whose disappearance he proudly and neurotically maps, and for all his self-awareness of the problems that plague him, this Astrov is also possessed by a need for something that he sees in Yelena and brings to (for Armitage) uncharacteristically brutish, albeit subtle, expression. I suspect we are not supposed to see it this way — that the tradition suggests that we should see him as a man taken over by love that he fails to see in himself, and that the tradition and the resulting expectations will be too much for us to escape.

I can’t do him this favor, thought. Astrov’s feigned disinterest, the blatant glances he casts in Yelena’s direction, the way he leans against a wall to read over her shoulder or cranes his body in her direction or puts himself in her line of sight all develop a frustration that he can only bring forth against her own expressed will and whose rejection he in turn blames on her: she is not beautiful, as he suggests in a previous scene, because her inner life being does not live up to his standards. Why? It’s ironic that he says this to the perfect Sonja, whose inner life might fulfill his demands, but who’s apparently too ugly for words. So apparently, it really is physical beauty that rules the day and the statement about inner beauty is just so many words. Quel hypocrite! And yet despite his quibbles, Astrov wants Yelena still, a state of mind that comes to expression in act III in a scene that makes the previously so-insightful doctor look like a willfully blind aggressor.

It really bothers me that this Astrov can both say he understands why Yelena wants him to leave the estate and then beg with his next breath for a private tryst with her. The audience laughs, but I cannot. His blindness to Sonja’s attraction swerves well into the range of cruelty when he says that he can’t believe that it would mean anything to Yelena. I cannot see the physical contact in that scene as intriguingly tempestuous, although the tension of women’s dubious consent has been the stuff of drama for millennia. She doesn’t seek his attentions — I believe what she says — and when she refuses, I do not feel sorry for him. In the wake of how he treats Yelena (and, perhaps, his imminent slide into full blown alcoholism, for which he excuses himself in Act I — admittedly this pings all of my personal prejudices), I cannot read Armitage’s Astrov as tragic, and to me this strengthens the character even if it contradicts what I suspect we are supposed to feel while watching him. It is Armitage’s gift that he can keep balancing on what I see as a knife’s edge; just when I want most to sympathize with Astrov, I find that I can’t. This inconsistency and blindness to his own words is a much more unsettling performance than the complete, often self-aware immersion in obsession that he has presented us with in the past — and given the staggering heights of Astrov’s blindness to his own behavior, ultimately a more satisfying one.

It’s possible that my inability to see Astrov in the way I guess I’m supposed to has to do with my read of Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) — whom I admired a great deal in this play (both character and actor). Trapped in a marriage where she is more nurse than wife, attempting to further her husband’s goals, stuck in the countryside where his retirement has brought him for lack of funds, Yelena’s kept away by his neuralgia from her music (the thing she’s trained to do). The play — with a healthy dose of judgmentality and good girl / bad girl thinking baked in that this adaptation tries but fails to mitigate — seems to condemn her for not wanting to help the poor or nurse the sick or comfort the elderly, but I’m puzzled as to why she should want to do any of those things, especially given that her days are spent trying to keep everyone cheerful and her nights, waiting hand and foot on her annoying, childish husband. No wonder she’s frustrated and no wonder she takes the only way out, doing her bit to push the interactions that will make it impossible for her husband to continue living in the countryside. I don’t see this Yelena as vapid or ineffectual or bored; rather, I see her as frustrated, the object of multiple, unwanted attentions from all sides that she can’t ward off, despite her explicit and repeated efforts to do so. To me this makes the end of Act IV, where she and Astrov eventually kiss, reactionary and unexpectedly infuriating. She gives in to the man that she has earlier described as the most interesting person for miles, just when she is about to leave (something she remarks upon herself), because permitting herself to do so earlier would just mean living down to all these men’s expectations. Astrov gets his embrace, but not even in an original way — he achieves it while reciting the lines that Vanya has said two acts earlier that he wanted to say to Yelena — taking her in his arms and saying “shhh, shhh.” In the end, the men of this play will always already have made Yelena into what they want and they all seem to want the same thing.

Again, I may be reading this play as edgier than it really wanted to be out of a combination of crush on Armitage and increasing inability to tolerate the dramatic trope of men destructively writing simultaneously their desire and their judgments on the women available to them. I also may have been unduly influenced by the atmosphere in the first preview — where I felt that the play was simultaneously driving us in two directions, with the incredible vehemence of the subdued anger and frustration of the characters repeatedly slamming into the physical and satirical humor of their lines. Especially in Act III, I thought they were deliberately making the character careen toward explosion only to jerk us out of that trajectory with jokes, and while I can’t say I was fully in synch with that as a spectator, it was intriguing. The subsequent previews backed (some very far) off this rhythm and so I can’t tell what they wanted to achieve. I felt the first preview had a lot of energy that I didn’t feel the other performances recaptured, but the more musing shows I saw also had their virtues.

What this all suggests for me is that there are two things that Armitage / the production will have to negotiate freshly every night: one is Astrov’s self-awareness and his relationship to his own demons, and the other is the question of just exactly how he addresses the nature of his attraction to / repulsion from Yelena. I wish I could be there to watch more of that — these things were different every night that I saw and it seems they have not yet settled on a reading that even Armitage and Eleazar fully share.

My most emphatically superstitious regards to the cast and crew of Uncle Vanya for their impending preview night!

~ by Servetus on January 23, 2020.

10 Responses to “A response to (not a review of) the Rickson / McPherson Uncle Vanya”

  1. Thank you for your feelings. Part of me wishes I didn’t have to wait until April to see the play again, I liked it much more than expected.
    I am looking forward to your thoughts on the female roles.


  2. 🙂 Very interesting personal analysis!
    Because we can watch behind a wise subtle fan’s eye, the stage actor’s playing abilities, in daily evolutive actings.
    Adding, it ‘d be another ambiguous character with an echo of certain current affairs: Me Too + Greta Thunberg together.
    Thank you to save us from a lot of personal work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah — I think some interviewer should really ask him about what Astrov thinks of Yelena; that could be an interesting question.


  3. I’m so pleased that your Armitage crush has rejuvenated – and that you weren’t sick of the sight of him after all the performances. It’s fascinating to read your accounts of the changes each day, and the influence of the different audiences. No doubt the press reviews will generate further alterations. I wonder how much the play will have altered when I see it in February.

    Liked by 1 person

    • that’s part of it — I don’t get sick of him the performer (at least not when he’s live). I saw LLL ten times total and he maintains his interest.

      I’ll be interested, too, to see what happens as the run moves forward.


  4. I’m glad for you that this brought back all those Armitage-related feelings, and even more strongly. I feel like I need to read it to understand more about the interactions of the characters, but your writing about it makes me almost feel like I’ve seen some of those scenes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m glad this has brought the Armitage crush back for you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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: