The old-fashioned rep system, in which a single cast of actors performs in two or more plays concurrently, has mostly died out in the American theater. It plays no part in New York’s theatrical marketplace, certainly, and is increasingly rare in London, as well. How much has been lost with the waning of this tradition is being poignantly illustrated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the next six weeks.
Visiting productions of “Uncle Vanya” and “Twelfth Night” from London’s biggest little theater, the Donmar Warehouse, feature the same cast under the direction of Sam Mendes, the theater’s newly departed chief. A more heavenly valedictory for Mendes’ decade at the theater could hardly be wished for: Superb individually, the productions should really be considered (and experienced) as a single, magnificent achievement. They offer further proof, if any were needed, of the director’s plentiful talents. Mendes, best known in New York for his long-running “Cabaret,” and as the man who has been entrusted with Broadway’s newest “Gypsy” (there’s that Oscar for “American Beauty,” too), has not specialized in this kind of “classic” fare during his reign at the Donmar, which makes the rewards of these ideally cast productions all the more impressive.
“Uncle Vanya” benefits immeasurably from being presented by actors who have come together to meet the challenges of performing two such demanding texts at the same time. The delicate interrelationships among Chekhov’s characters must be delineated in ways that lie beyond speech to truly bring his plays to life. A sense of real intimacy is necessary. That essential feeling of lives knit tightly together, a circumstance that can breed both affection and irritation, permeates Mendes’ production: Long but comfortable silences are scattered throughout the evening, from the languid opening moments to the corrosively sad conclusion.
The adaptation by Brian Friel is a bit too self-consciously eloquent, and a pointed tone of sarcasm is unnecessarily pervasive at times (even the gentle-hearted Sonya succumbs to gentle mockery of her beloved Vanya at one point), but Mendes’ performers all transmit a sense of having settled deeply into the skins of their characters and their cozily stagnant milieu. This is particularly true of the two marquee performers who subtly set the evening’s tone: Simon Russell Beale, an endearing, softly embittered and at times utterly abject Vanya, and Emily Watson, whose performance as Sonya is simply transfixing.
Relegated to the backwaters of life, where they have contentedly toiled for years, Vanya and his niece Sonya are suddenly brought face to face with the unsettling mirage of actual happiness. Vanya has lost his faith in the man to whom he had been devoted a lifetime of effort, his late sister’s husband Serebryakov (David Bradley), but he’s fallen in love with the man’s new young wife Yelena (Helen McCrory). Sonya’s secretly harbored affection for Dr. Astrov (a magnetic Mark Strong), the medical man with a quietly intense passion for saving the local forests, has blossomed with proximity into an abiding love that she can no longer bury beneath her self-effacing exterior.
Both affections are hopeless: Vanya’s comically, Sonya’s more tragically. The unhappiness of Beale’s Vanya manifests itself in painfully funny bouts of free-floating peevishness and self-pity, his controlled frustration increasingly released in spurts of agitation, most pitifully when he crumples to the ground in a paroxysm of desperate love in the presence of McCrory’s lusciously bored Yelena. Pushing 50, Beale’s Vanya knows his affection is useless, which is why he is most affecting not when he’s declaring his ardor but dissecting the mistakes of a wasted life: Lying prostrate on the table that is the centerpiece of Anthony Ward’s effectively spare set, Beale’s Vanya is most poignant as he gently castigates himself for not having fallen in love with Yelena 10 years before, when he might have had a chance.
Watson’s Sonya is still achingly young and full of heedless good spirits, even if she is already acutely aware of life’s bruising tendencies. Urging Yelena to tell Astrov of her love and discover his feelings for her, Sonya stops short, regretting her insistence on knowing the truth. “If you don’t know the truth, you can still have hope,” she says with heartbreaking matter-of-factness — just one of many unforgettable moments marking Watson’s luminous performance. This is a Sonya of devastating simplicity and sensitivity, exemplified by eyes that transmit every moment of inward suffering with bright lucidity.
Of course Vanya and Sonya are not alone in finding that life comes up short. McCrory’s coy, effortlessly bewitching Yelena is herself all too aware that she’s both inescapably unhappy, and Strong’s Astrov is so marinated in his cynicism, to say nothing of alcohol, that even his pity for Sonya and Vanya emits a distinct chill. A deliciously funny turn by Anthony O’Donnell in the role of Telegin, who speaks with obsessive admiration of the man who cuckolded him, reminds us that his situation, while the most absurd in its details, is universal: All the characters are forced to find some sort of comfortable way of forging an intimacy with disappointment.
“Uncle Vanya” is, indeed, less a drama than a theatrical poem that muses, with a sometimes lightly humorous touch, upon the innumerable ways in which life lets us down. Love consistently misfires, and even the satisfactions of a violent act aren’t as easily achieved as we imagine.
Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy “Twelfth Night,” as we have come to know it, would seem to suggest something entirely different: That misguided emotional attachments can be set straight, the most painful losses undone. The achievement of Mendes’ revelatory production is to quietly question those assumptions, to underscore the tang of bitterness that underlies the play’s breezy surfaces.
This doesn’t mean the play’s lusty humor is underplayed or disregarded. In fact the gangly Andrew Aguecheek of Bradley and the blustery, flatulent Toby Belch of Paul Jesson are a matched pair of brilliantly funny characterizations; their guying of Malvolio is dispatched with wonderful brio. And the romantic entanglements among Strong’s virile Orsino, McCrory’s larky, spirited Olivia and Watson’s gravely tender Viola certainly sort themselves out in the usual happy manner, with the reunion of Viola and her lost brother Sebastian (Gyuri Sarossy) bringing an unusually strong sting to the eyes in the play’s final moments.
But the emotional force of that happy conclusion is directly linked to the shadows that have preceded it — and, indeed, that accompany it, in the haunting presence of a blindfolded and straitjacketed Malvolio, trapped in the gilt frame at the back of the stage that dominates Ward’s set.
Throughout, Mendes uses the exquisite music by George Stiles, played live by a trio of musicians, to accentuate the subtle strains of melancholy in the text that are often inadequately explored. A slightly mournful melody decorates the generally riotous scene that finds Beale’s Malvolio deludedly dreaming of marriage to his mistress Olivia while Toby and Andrew comment gleefully on his preposterous infatuation. Beale’s hilariously obsequious Malvolio, who is like the most priggishly officious maitre d’ one might ever encounter, is gradually humanized by his humiliation, so that his comeuppance has a grave and painful aspect.
The songs are set to expansive melodies that allow us to absorb every word, and are beautifully sung, in a clear, light tenor by O’Donnell, who is first-rate as the fool Feste. These lyrical laments become central to the play’s meaning rather than diversions. This is, indeed, a “Twelfth Night” in which it “raineth every day” — and its contemplative beauty would not have been possible, it seems clear, if the actor and directors were not simultaneously exploring the more overtly sad notes of Chekhov’s genius. Malvolio’s cry of anguish at Olivia in the play’s last moments, “Tell me why!,
” carries unmistakable echoes of similar unanswerable questions asked by characters in “Vanya.” Both plays, at their essence, explore with eloquent compassion human beings’ desperate, sometimes funny, often fruitless quest for emotional sustenance to get through the arid expanses of life.
Seeing them performed in quick succession, by the same set of actors, accentuates these and other harmonies. It underscores the continuities of the art form, too, tracing a firm line between theatrical geniuses who thrived centuries apart, illustrating how Shakespeare’s boundless compassion informed Chekhov’s. And even as we marvel at the versatility of the performers onstage, we are reminded that it is not just great actors who contain multitudes; by lending our own souls to the Sonyas and Vanyas and Violas and Malvolios before us, we come to contain them, too.