by Mel Cooper
Uncle Vic’s Vanya
(Stratford East Extension)
Sometimes the show that is less complete and polished is more stimulating, fascinating and engaging. For instance: the text of The Great Extension, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It struck me as unfinished and needing some pruning, maybe a whole new ending – yet I enjoyed parts of it enormously and was very glad to have seen it. It made me want to suggest rewrites only because what was there was already so good. I certainly found it far more interesting as a contemporary drama than ENRON; more imaginatively written as drama and, as usual at the TRSE, very well-performed. It just has not quite made up its mind whether it wants to be a West End farce, an absurdist Marx Brothers vaudeville, or a Joe Orton-ish black comedy.
It references all three. I think it should be all three, but finally opt for Joe Orton to achieve its best. Some of the characters are really interesting. I wanted to know more about them and see them develop. But for me, at the moment, the play does not yet work as it should. That said, it certainly works as an evening out; it got everyone in the audience debating about racism and religious bigotry, and a lot of people who saw it thought it was terrific as is. So, in the end, I didn’t mind the lack of finish, and would like to see it again post-final polish. Plus, there’s the lure of discovering a hit-in-the-making.
A classic play being developed by a group of theatre professionals can also be much more interesting than some of the full-fledged productions on view. And that’s exactly what happened at the Young Vic last week in London. A director to watch, Joe Hill-Gibbins, is putting together a new Uncle Vanya. He and his ensemble invited the public to eleven “workshop” performances. There were about a hundred lucky theatregoers sitting around the walls of the tiny Maria Theatre space to see a work-in-progress with no sets, no costumes, and only minimal props as required. But this Vanya got (and kept) everyone’s attention.
Jonathan Slinger was an acerbic, troubled Astrov—the perfect foil for Stuart McQuarrie’s loveable Vanya, and his attraction to and for Justine Mitchell’s gorgeous Yelena was the magnet at the center of the reading. In fact, the very lack of that final polish revealed a play that was raw and gripping, evoking a true collaboration; a “lived” experience for cast and audience alike.
Interestingly, the Young Vic had been very nervous about admitting theater-goers to an interpretation-in-progress, although the actors were off-book except for a few minutes at the start and finish. But, because nothing was yet set in stone, you could feel the audience listening intently for which readings and nuances worked, and which they hoped would be changed. And afterwards, when the actors were chatting in the bar with members of the audience, they admitted how much the presence of the audience had actually given them. The pleasure of watching a butterfly emerge from its rehearsal-room cocoon was palpable. Good news travels fast, because there was a queue for returns the night I attended.
Joe Hill-Gibbins (who was responsible for the very successful “documentary” play The Girlfriend Experience last summer), spoke to the audience in advance, explaining to them what exactly to expect. But I doubt anyone expected it to be quite so moving and illuminating. It was definitely one of the richest Vanyas I’ve ever experienced. The characters were alive, humorous and poignant, fighting against absurdity and boredom, frail and troubled in ways that were instantly captivating. I am now very much looking forward to the end-product of this process and have become aware of the rewards of attending workshops. Looks like I’m learning something new! And yes, I will definitely be booking tickets for Uncle Vanya when the full-out production is onstage, to see where its cast and crew have taken it.
The ENO’s new production, a pairing of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Rite of Spring, does not work for lots of people, but it worked for me. The Bluebeard is very explicit, and implicitly linked to current stories of people locked up in cellars for years, of abusive men who torture their women. It also brilliantly portrays Judith’s obsession with Bluebeard and the consequences of her entering the forbidden territory that brings out his latent sadism. Clive Bayley’s singing and acting of Bluebeard is troubling, touching, and sinister by turns; and Michaela Martens is fascinating as Judith.
Paired with this is the Rite of Spring, by Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s award-winning company. This Rite is set in a contemporary community—Christian, yet pagan—dancing to summon the renewal of Spring to a snowbound, wintry landscape. The choreography mirrors the rhythms and cross-rhythms of the piece perfectly, and extends the highly charged music with fascinating imagery (and an ending I do not wish to give away).
Edward Gardener, a major star of the evening, conducts both works with a vivid understanding of the music that—after nearly one hundred years—still sounds raw and modern to us now. He finds the lyricism and beauty as well as the shocks in both scores.