Inside Story

Ubiquitous Uncle Vanya

Brian McFarlane revisits Chekhov’s remarkable play, on screen and away from Russia

Brian McFarlane 2 October 2014 4134 words

Nothing stagey: Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn in Andre Gregory’s production of Uncle Vanya, filmed by Louis Malle

In the days before National Theatre Live became a fixture in our art-house cinemas, television viewers would sometimes, though not often, be lucky enough to see filmed versions of notable theatrical productions – and without the artifice of pretending we’re concurrently joining the actual theatre audience. One of the most masterly of these was the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Uncle Vanya, with its magisterial cast headed by Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Michael Redgrave, filmed in a straightforward manner that properly concentrated our attention on the actors’ faces and the dialogue.

Wonderful as it was to see this cast-of-a-lifetime going about its (essentially theatre) business, a related mini-phenomenon seems to me well worth noting. By this I mean the way that enterprising film-makers have gone about relocating Chekhov’s Vanya in time and/or place. Nearest home has been Michael Blakemore’s Country Life (1994), in which outback Australia stood in for provincial Russia; then came Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), set of course in a Manhattan theatre, and Anthony Hopkins’s August (1996), with the action transported to rural Wales. Was there something in the cinematic water that brought about this rash of international Vanyas in the nineties? Other notable versions have been made for television, and the play continues to be performed in lavishly cast productions. It can’t but make one wonder what is it about this play that brings it so regularly to the public’s attention?

The play’s the thing…

Serebryakov, an egotistical academic of, we learn, less distinction than he implies, brings his new and much younger second wife, Yelena, to the family estate in rural Russia, where his brother-in-law Vanya, and Sonya, the daughter of Serebryakov’s first marriage, are trying to keep the place going. Their efforts have long supported the ageing scholar/dilettante’s supposedly distinguished career in a distant city. His return with his young wife unsettles the routine of the home he left years before, and the doctor, Astrov, who attends to his ailments, is a further complicating factor. It’s enough to say here that this scenario of intruders in a quiet pond, let alone potentially disruptive revenants such as Serebryakov (and, in her own way, Yelena), has a long and creditable history in fiction. Think of Emma, for instance, and the disturbance caused by Frank Churchill’s arrival in Highbury village – or, even more drastically, Heathcliff’s appearance at Wuthering Heights.

The Serebryakovs’ return enrages Vanya, ultimately to the point of pulling a gun on this poseur from the metropolis; Sonya, long in love with Astrov, has to face the fact that he is more attracted to Yelena, in whom she, perhaps unwisely, confides her feeling for the doctor; and even Marina, the elderly retainer, finds the routine she has established for the running of the household is unsettled. When the visitors leave, Sonya and Vanya can only return to “work,” the work of running the estate, and, in Sonya’s words, to find peace in doing so.

Apart from the structural device of having outsiders cause various kinds of emotional and other disruptions, there are several recurring thematic strands that perhaps help to account for the ongoing popularity of the play with stage producers – and with film-makers in such diverse times and places. The therapeutic value of work is one such preoccupation; this is what will save Sonya and, if she can influence him, Vanya. Another is Astrov’s “green” philosophy about the forests and how mankind ravages nature without a thought for succeeding generations. Yet another is the disparity, sometimes marked by longing, sometimes by animosity, between those leading quietly unspectacular lives and those whose aspirations have led them to distant metropolises.

I write here not at all as a Chekhov scholar but as a mere idolater, and especially in relation to Uncle Vanya, which I try to see whenever it is produced, and as one much interested in the lure it has exerted over film-makers in at least three different English-speaking countries. To see and hear the original, or at least the nearest version to it in another language, you’re probably best advised to watch that Chichester version (it is now available on DVD), though I have some doubts about this. But if you’re fascinated to see what three film adaptors have seen in the play then it’s certainly worth considering the three films named above. All three appeared in the mid 1990s, and they had been flanked by a BBC television version in 1991, starring David Warner in the title role, and a London stage version in 1996, starring Derek Jacobi. In that decade, you could hardly miss the loquacious Russian, even if his nationality was susceptible to change.

Country Life, or Vanya goes bush

The opening credits of the 1994 Australian film Country Life read, “A Michael Blakemore film suggested by Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya,” and the word “suggested” implies that we are not in for a literal adaptation of the play. Sydney-born Blakemore, after “several unhappy years” (his words) as an actor, has had a long and distinguished career in English theatre as a director. He also directed another Australian film, the documentary memoir A Personal History of the Australian Surf, and the British comedy Privates on Parade, but the theatre is where he has made his name.

When I asked him earlier this year where the idea for Country Life came from, he replied:

I’d always loved the play and had directed it on the stage, and I thought there were remarkable similarities between Russia and Australia in the late nineteenth century. They both looked constantly to Europe, in the case of Russia towards France and Germany, where they got their architecture from, and in Australia’s case obviously to Britain. They were also marked by huge territory – enormous land masses with isolated communities.

In both cases, he said, people longed for the other place from which their values inherited a sometimes incompatible deference, and this could lead to a sense of incompleteness and of dissatisfaction with what was readily to hand in their lives – and to a corresponding need to justify this against any perception of patronage from visitants from the Great World.

Country Life (and Uncle Vanya) acquires a special resonance by virtue of the fact that the Serebryakov character, here called Alexander, is played with witty understanding by Blakemore himself. The in joke, if that’s what was intended, is that Blakemore returns to Australia trailing clouds of real achievement and distinction, whereas the Alexander/Serebryakov figure is no more than a snobbish poseur. Jack/Vanya (John Hargreaves) and Sally/Sonya (Kerry Fox) have, like their Russian antecedents, worked hard to maintain the family estate, which has provided the means for their supposedly illustrious relative to acquire his metropolitan reputation. In reality, he has been sacked from his position as drama critic in London, a fact he conceals from his Australian family as he immediately sets about remodelling their daily routines in order to bring them more into line with the “civilised” European values to which he has become accustomed. By “civilised” he means such crucially important matters as dining at 8 pm, or better still 8.30, rather than the vulgar antipodean hour of 7 pm, and avoiding crude abbreviations of names. His much younger second wife’s name is, he stresses, Deborah, not “Deb.”

When the train bearing Alexander and Deborah/Yelena (Greta Scacchi) arrives at the rural railway station, the “European” idea is introduced in a more significant way. The other alighting passengers are men coming home from service in the Great War, and evocative songs associated with that war and the idea of Europe, such as “Tipperary” and “Keep the Home-Fires Burning,” are heard on the soundtrack. And to cap it all, there’s a rendering of “Land of Hope and Glory” just as Alexander and Deborah disembark, thus aligning them with the Britain they’ve left behind. This notion of a European war in which Australians have been involved is taken up later in the local lecture given by the doctor, Max/Astrov (Sam Neill), in which he denounces the idea of Australian lives’ being sacrificed to a cause which has nothing to do with their country.

This lecture is thematically central to Blakemore’s film – and given that he wrote, directed and starred in it, Country Life is indubitably his film – in several important ways. For one, he carries over from Chekhov the doctor’s concern with forests. Max argues against the cutting down of trees, incurring the wrath of a local grazier, Pettinger (Bryan Marshall), who shouts that it’s “a waste of good grazing land” to plant trees and that Max would be better employed discouraging Aborigines (“pests,” he insists) from stealing livestock. Pettinger shifts from environmental to national matters, warning Max, “You’ll find no sympathy here for your anti-English, anti-war sentiments.” Max stands for a valuing of the life of Australia and hopes “we’ll never again send men to prop up British trade”; and the meeting ends in riot, a young returned serviceman punching him. Blakemore has picked up the essential radicalism in Chekhov’s Astrov and convincingly transferred it to rural/pastoral Australia.

The famous Australian notion of “cultural cringe” in relation to Europe – and, of course, especially to England – is one of the ways in which Blakemore’s reading of Chekhov has picked up on the idea of a country, just barely a nation, aspiring to a faraway set of values and decorums and finding itself inadequate to the task. Jack’s mother (Patricia Kennedy) conscientiously reads Throne and Country (echoing her Chekhovian counterpart’s obsession with “pamphlets”) and is extravagant in her praise of Alexander’s acquired British affectations. The film opens with Dr Max riding in to tend a sick labourer who intones, “I hate it here. I’m going home next year,” and ends with some fulfilment of Max’s environmental wishes: the old rose garden, whose dilapidation Alexander has lamented, has now given way to an upsurge of native flora as Jack and Sonya reconcile themselves to the country they live in.

At heart, Blakemore’s reworked Uncle Vanya is still a drama of disruption. Alexander’s demands about the running of the household – in matters of mealtimes, of choice of wines, of his needing a separate room because he “works” far into the night, and requires attendance on his needs at such times – cause disruption to everyone, not least to the outspoken cook/housekeeper Hannah (a sharp character study from Googie Withers). But disruption on other levels has more far-reaching effects. The pressures it places on Jack lead to his incompetent attempts to use a gun against Alexander. He and Sally have worked to enable Alexander to live the grand life at a remove from the source of his income, and in return he makes lofty demands on their services – and wants to sell the property from under them.

Further, his beautiful young wife causes a certain amount of sexual havoc in the Australian scene. The doctor, Max, has been paying more than his usual calls to the household, justified by his attentions to Alexander, but it is his attentions to Deborah that threaten serious disturbance – not just to Max but also to Sally, who nurses unrequited love for him, and to Jack, who is also attracted to Yelena. When the European visitors depart, Jack and Sally will take refuge in work and, Sally hopes, find peace. Hannah is relieved that they can return to their usual meal routine, with mutton in all its guises served at her preferred hours.

Going West: Vanya on 42nd Street

If I never see Uncle Vanya again, I’ll have the comforting thought that, in watching Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, Chekhov’s great play came to life once for me with a perfection that almost defies articulation here. Less an adaptation than a performance-in-the-making captured on film, and yet not just the film-of-a-play, this is a whole film experience which happens to be about a play in rehearsal. In fact, it is as near-perfect a fusion of film and theatre as we are likely to see. The effect goes beyond watching “performances,” though I would have given much to see the actual production; instead, in some magical way, it is “lives” we seem to be observing, and even the word “observing” tends to suggest a remove that doesn’t do justice to the intense involvement the film excites.

The opening credits point to the film’s complex authorship. It is “From André Gregory’s ‘Vanya,’ Based on Anton Chekhov’s Play, Adapted by David Mamet, Directed by Louis Malle.” Gregory’s production was apparently highly regarded by the few who were invited to see it in 1991 and 1992 at New York’s Victory Theatre, the decaying cinema opposite the New Amsterdam Theatre that was used for the film’s location. Mamet’s adaptation sits faultlessly on the ears: it feels at once contemporary and utterly true to its Chekhovian antecedent.

As crowds make their way along 42nd Street, the camera unobtrusively picks out members of the cast as they make their way to the theatre. Julianne Moore (Yelena) and Brooke Smith (Sonya) are chatting as they walk (subtly preparing us for the rapport their characters will find), and Wallace Shawn (Vanya) is leaning against a wall munching what could be a schnitzel. Then the rest of the cast and director Gregory come together in the foyer of the grandly decaying theatre, where, in casual chat, Smith tells Gregory that she’s “feeling very comfortable” with her role in the play. So far, the film looks like a documentary, but in hindsight it is a tonally acute preparation for what follows: the ordinariness of the anonymous lives of the street and then of the cast, and the desuetude of the once-grand theatre, have readied us for the lives Chekhov–Mamet–Gregory–Malle put before us in the following two hours.

Once inside the theatre, Gregory sets the action and the actors in motion, intervening only to mark the breaks between acts. Each time, this comes as a slight shock to the viewer, so complete has been the immersion of the actors in their characters and their relationships. There are a few glimpses of the “offstage” cast members at any given moment sitting at a remove and watching the proceedings, but this is not distracting because on one level Uncle Vanya is a play about people observing the behaviour of others; an offstage player quietly watching seems almost an extension of this motif.

We’ve been used to seeing Chekhov performed in theatres with silver birches suggested through windows or samovars at the ready on sturdy pre-revolutionary sideboards, but in Malle’s film the players go through their paces on a starkly set stage with a few ordinary chairs and table, and in modern dress that never calls attention to itself. In fact, this rudimentary approach to aspects of physical production makes us realise how little we need elaborate sets and costumes when the actors so wholly involve us in the characters whose lives they inhabit. Or in film terms how little we need anything but the sparest use of its narrating techniques. By this, I don’t mean that the effect is static (as in the old days of the American Film Theatre or in National Theatre Live): Malle knows when a close-up will make its point or when, as in a scene between Yelena and Sonya, a chaste shot/reverse-shot, culminating in a two-shot, underscores the rapprochement at the heart of this affecting moment.

It is not possible in the space remaining to do full justice to the way the familiar drama of the disruptive effect of Serebryakov and Yelena’s visit to the family estate unfolds here, but perhaps some account of a few revealing moments will give an idea of what is achieved in this reading of the play. From the start, as the camera moves from the company chatting to the set where Nanny (Phoebe Brand) is gently chiding Astrov (Larry Pine) about his age, his drinking and his deteriorating looks, with Vanya seemingly asleep on a bench, the transition from the “real” world of the theatre setting, with the others watching, to the stage is so unobtrusively done as to be almost unnoticeable.

In another early episode, the egoistic Serebryakov sits writing at his desk while Maman (Lynn Cohen), the mother-in-law who admires him to the point of reverence, is at an adjacent table discoursing about women’s rights. As they each pay attention to their respective concerns, Vanya tries to understand – and Shawn makes us grasp the effort involved – why his mother reveres Serebryakov and why Yelena stays faithful to her elderly husband. Lynn Cohen’s Maman is moving in her dedication to what she sees as important “matters” and urges Vanya to talk, because “how can we know [your thoughts] if you don’t tell us?” And Vanya vents his anger at what he sees as the “wastage” of his life. Shawn’s Vanya is one of the rare exponents of this role who manages both to grasp the comedy that Chekhov always insisted was his underlying aim and at the same time to register the poignancy of his situation.

It may sound odd to say there is nothing stagey about a film set almost entirely on a theatre stage but in fact, as the characters move easily (or uneasily) in and out of each other’s company, there is a naturalism that makes the distinguished Olivier–Redgrave theatrical version look a bit stiff and over-plotted in its moves. One of the threads in the play’s emotional patterning concerns Yelena, Astrov and Sonya, and Malle and his actors articulate this with wonderful subtlety and touching affect. The sexual rapport between Yelena (a radiant Moore) and Astrov is made palpable in a very early scene when he is trying to interest her in his serious concern with forests. That concern carries a convincing weight reinforced by the loving support evinced by Sonya, standing by as the camera fleetingly captures the light of admiration – and something more – in her eyes.

Brooke Smith exquisitely registers Sonya’s feeling for Astrov, whether in her oblique question to him about the possibility of his loving someone, or in her self-examination after he’s gone, and especially in the growing trust between her and Yelena, in whom she confides her love for Astrov. Yelena promises to sound out Astrov discreetly, claiming that “the truth, no matter how bad, is always better than uncertainty,” and it is when she is left to reflect about Sonya’s plight that the film makes what may be its one miscalculation. Her thoughts are given in voiceover, a common enough cinematic device, but somehow at this moment it jars because Malle has made us forget not only that this is a play in rehearsal but also that it is a film.

André Gregory, as the play’s director, had rehearsed the company over a period of years, we are told in a closing title, “mostly at the abandoned Victory Theatre on 42nd Street, without ever planning to perform the play.” We can only be grateful that he got together with Louis Malle (for whom he and Wallace Shawn had memorably appeared in My Dinner with André in 1981), because we’ll be lucky ever to have these lives so eloquently put before us again.

August: a hard life in rural Wales

August seems to have slipped under the critical (and audience) radar, an undeserved fate for Anthony Hopkins’s double stint as director and star. It is perhaps the least venturesome of the three 1990s film adaptations of Uncle Vanya, and Julian Mitchell’s screenplay hews very closely to Chekhov, but within these limitations it very often achieves a striking poignancy as it charts these lives of frustrated longings. Set in 1890s North Wales, it perhaps allows too many long shots of the beauties of its rural and coastal settings, but the camera in general maintains a fluidity that keeps staginess at bay.

The Welshness is less central to the lives examined here than was outback Australia to its characters in Country Life. There are snatches of Ieuan/Vanya singing “Bread of Heaven,” glimpses of the mining company’s works where the accident that calls on Dr Lloyd/Astrov’s attendance takes place, and snappish references from Professor Alexander Blathwaite/Serebryakov to its dreariness: “Wales, I can’t stick. I feel I’ve fallen off the earth and landed on another planet.” So, the point is made about the yearning for a distant other place that is there in Chekhov and in Blakemore’s version, though it feels less crucial here.

If the external vistas can sometimes seem gratuitous, the way the camera prowls inside the house establishes a sense of its confinement, however comfortably appointed it may seem, underscoring the capacity of the inmates to get on each other’s nerves. As well, Hopkins has guided cinematographer Robin Vidgeon to ensure the apt placement of the camera to underline the nature of a relationship. This is seen in the reversing close-ups of Helen/Yelena and the Doctor as they struggle with his sense of urgency and hers of reluctance and propriety before mutuality is created in a two-shot. And there is an intelligent fluidity in the way the camera picks its way among groups of characters, fastening here on a close-up when a particular reaction is required or when solidarity is at issue, or there where an exchange of glances forwards our understanding.

But the real strength of the film is in the ensemble acting that brings these familiar characters to new life. Hopkins, directing his first feature, makes Ieuan a complex amalgam of repressed longing, affections, boredom and explosive rage, but he has also allowed plenty of scope for the rest of the (mainly Welsh) cast to make its presence felt. In particular, Rhian Morgan’s Sian/Sonya is a remarkable study of the plain woman who has come to terms with her failure to win the Doctor’s love, and she invests the film’s (essentially the play’s) last lines about work and peace and rest with wonderful eloquence and poignancy. Her scenes with Kate Burton’s Helen/Yelena, a fragile beauty, have a rewarding sense of two women being convincingly themselves together.

The play’s interest in such matters as the Doctor’s environmental concerns and the question of women’s rights (explicitly in the elderly mother’s pamphlets, more obliquely in how a woman might need to conceal feelings that a man would be ready to express) is potently enough present. The overall effect, apart from Ieuan’s outburst, is one of gentle melancholy, touched with humour, reminding us that Chekhov always insisted his plays were comedies.

All three of these films have a good deal to recommend them. Malle’s is a triumphant rendering of Chekhov in the interstices of theatre and film. Blakemore’s is an adventurous relocation in time as well as place, and Hopkins’s a less adventurous one, but both attest to the durability and adaptability of this great play.

Where, I wonder, will Vanya strike next? I’d like to see Ritesh Batra, the Indian director of the beautiful film of frustrated feeling, The Lunchbox, have a go. Perhaps he could reimagine provincial Russians, longing for the metropolis, as a Raj set, with some longing for the Old Country and others trying to come to terms with where they actually are. •