Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 21st September 2002

Ivanov / Uncle Vanya

The Spectator - 21st September 2002

It's unfortunate that the new production of Ivanov at the National Theatre should appear at exactly the same time as the new production of Uncle Vanya at the Domnar Warehouse. What resources can Katie Mitchell, its director, hope to marshal to compete with the dazzling showmanship of Sam Mendes? This production of Uncle Vanya, along with a production of Twelfth Night with the same cast that opens next month, is the swansong of our most talented young director, his triumphant exit from the West End stage. After this, presumably, Britain's answer to Orson Welles will move permanently to Los Angeles where he'll fall foul of the Hollywood studios, marry and divorce a succession of beautiful actresses and end up making adverts for sherry.

Orson Welles's character arc is similar to that of Nikolai Ivanov, the Hamlet-like protagonist of Chekhov's first play. After an initial burst of youthful energy, Ivanov has lapsed into a state of stultifying inertia. He's bored and irritable, a thwarted genius condemned to live amongst pygmies. Ivanov is such a deeply unattractive character that in order for the play to work he has to be played by a charming, sympathetic actor and the central weakness of Katie Mitchell's production is the casting of Owen Teale in the lead. Teale has a heavy, lumbering presence that makes it hard to believe that Ivanov was ever a great man. He shows us the empty shell Ivanov has become without giving us enough of a sense of the person he used to be. (Teale isn't helped by David Harrower's wooden translation. This is the second Harrower translation I've seen this year--he translated The Girl on the Sofa which was one of the low points of the Edinburgh Festival--and it's obvious that he suffers from a tin ear.)

Ultimately, though, it's Chekhov who must saddle the blame for the fact that this production doesn't really work. There's only so much a director can do; Ivanov just isn't a very good play. This becomes strikingly apparent when you see Uncle Vanya immediately afterwards. Vanya is based on another of Chekhov's plays, The Wood Demon, which he wrote a couple of years after Ivanov, and the two plays share many of the same themes, characters and plot points. (The same prop even crops up in the third act.) Indeed, the plays are so similar that Ivanov seems like an inferior draft of Vanya. In Vanya, Chekhov has taken the raw material of his first play and shaped it into a masterpiece.

The principal difference between the two plays is that the man suffering from the mid-life crisis in Vanya--the doctor, Mikhail Astrov--isn't the central character. That role is occupied by Vanya Voynitsky, the 47-year-old protagonist. He's much more of an everyman than either Ivanov or Astrov. They seem rooted in their particular time and place, whereas Vanya is a figure of universal resonance. He's the intelligent man who's done nothing with his life, the ardent lover trapped in the body of a sexually unattractive male. He's the epitome of unfulfilled promise and who amongst us, with the exception of Sam Mendes, can fail to identify with that?

In addition to a vastly superior play, the wunderkind has another ace up his sleeve: Simon Russell-Beale. The difference between a good actor and a great actor is that a good actor completely disappears into a role whereas a great actor somehow manages to embody each character he plays while, at the same time, always being himself. Simon Russell-Beale pulls off this conjuring trick here. To all intents and purposes, he's the same clever, gauche, slightly petulant character he always is; yet he's also, unmistakably, Vanya Voynitsky. His performance in the play's climatic scene, when he finally confronts the desiccated old professor who's ruined his life, is spellbinding.

The problem with having an actor as gifted as Russell-Beale in the lead is that the supporting players tend to be a little outshone. This wouldn't matter so much if the play was Hamlet, but the secondary characters in Vanya share almost as much stage time as the protagonist. Mark Strong and Helen McCrory aren't weak, exactly, but they aren't in the same class as Russell-Beale. Only Emily Watson manages to hold her own.

Nevertheless, this is a lush, libidinal production that does full justice to Brian Friel's lyrical translation. Chekhov always insisted on calling Vanya a "farce", but Friel's translation restores the gravitas that was missing from Michael Frayn's recent effort. Friel has another play running in the West End at the moment called Afterplay which follows the lives of two Chekhovian characters, one from Vanya, the other from The Three Sisters, who meet in Moscow in the 1920s. It's supposed to be good--I'm reviewing it next week--but if it's pure Chekhovian magic you're after, it's hard to imagine anything beating Sam Mendes's Uncle Vanya.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share

Twitter RT @msjenniferjames: So 'Manchester Lesbians' physically blocked a group of women activists from a GRA meeting today AND LITERALLY ALL THE…  (52 minutes ago)


The shocking truth about Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang -
The intellectual dark web by Bari Weiss -
How identity politics is harming the sciences by Heather Mac Donald -
The fall of the German Empire by Ross Douthat -
How Tom Wolfe became Tom Wolfe by Michael Lewis - Vanity Fair
The neuro-diversity case for free speech by Geoffrey Miller -
The Age of Outrage by Jonathan Haidt -
The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski -
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony -
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller -
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan -
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand -
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge -
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell -
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander -
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell -
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff -
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings -
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew -
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus -
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman -
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer -
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan -
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs -
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan -
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker -
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood -
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray -
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter -
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win -
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons -
Inside Westminster's free school -
Robert Conquest obit -
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that -


Andrew Lilico
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone


AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from

  • Buy the DVD from

  • IMdb Page on the film