“when I hear the hum of my young trees, which I planted with my own hands, I know the climate is a little in my control”*

*Astrov, in Act I of Uncle Vanya (1898).

Above: Badenweiler, Germany. (Wikipedia): “The Russian writer Anton Chekhov died there on 15 July (o.s. 2 July) 1904. From Badenweiler, Chekhov wrote outwardly jovial letters to his sister Masha describing the food and surroundings. Badenweiler became one of Chekhov’s hometown Taganrog’s sister cities in 2002.”

Sarah Hemming wrote in the Financial Times of December 23 2020:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000qplz via @bbciplayer

“At the front of the stage there’s an exhausted doctor talking about an epidemic; behind him a middle-aged man wakes, befuddled from an afternoon nap, and laments the sudden upending of normality in his life: “I wake up and the whole blasted nightmare starts again,” he complains. “I’ve been cast adrift.”

It’s a scene that could have been written yesterday. In fact, this is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, written more than 120 years ago, and brought to London’s West End earlier this year in a superb production by Ian Rickson. In March it felt uncannily resonant; now that staging, cut short by our own upended normality, has been filmed and will be broadcast on the BBC next week. The depiction of a group of people stranded by sudden change in their lives feels even fresher than before.

“It’s way more relevant than we could ever have imagined,” says the British actor Toby Jones, whose brilliant performance as Vanya anchors the play. “On stage I used to sit in that chair and listen to Richard [Armitage, playing the doctor] describing the epidemic and think, ‘It’s so crazy how relevant this play is.’ This family is locked together, loving each other, at the end of their tether with each other, and wrestling with the everyday and the eternal all the time. Everyone’s been forced to stop; everyone’s a bit bored; everyone’s projecting into the future. What a remarkable, ahead-of-his-time writer he was.”

The play was certainly groundbreaking in its day. A masterpiece of misdirected love, wasted potential and thwarted hopes, it’s also deliberately uneventful. “In real life people don’t spend every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love,” the playwright wrote. “Someone should write a play in which people come and go, eat, talk about the weather and play cards . . . People eat a meal and at the same time their happiness is made or their lives are ruined.”

In Uncle Vanya he wrote such a play. The lead character is the frustrated manager of a rundown rural estate whose routine has been capsized by the arrival of his brother-in-law, a pompous professor. Work on the estate has stopped, people drink too much, others fritter time away. The household feels like a ship becalmed; the characters, shorn of daily purpose, fall to brooding — none more than Vanya, who realises he has misspent his life.

In 2020 that introspection and sense of impotence feel all too familiar. But what makes the play so great and so contemporary, suggests Jones, is Chekhov’s keen understanding of the way comedy and tragedy go hand in hand.

“There’s something about this play right now where the comedy sits so hard up against the desolation,” he says. “I think we understand that. Things are both appalling and trivial at the same time; despair happens to minor characters while major characters are talking and vice versa. It’s really funny, really sad and really terrible. And that’s the human comedy of it.”

That has guided his playing of the part, he adds: “In a way the sadness looks after itself. I think you can go very hard at the comedy and that serves the anger and the sadness.”

His Vanya is grumpy, self-dramatising and very funny. His face almost as rumpled as his shirt, he holds forth one minute — “I could have been another Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky” — and gets stuck in a cupboard the next. But he’s also a character for whom you feel immense sympathy. In his earliest version, Chekhov included a suicide and a happy ending, but he dropped that for something less dramatic and far more heartbreaking. Vanya and his niece Sonya eventually give up their hopes of happiness and go back to work. In Jones’s nuanced performance, we see what that costs.

“I was listening to John le Carré the other day talking about how old age was about reconciling yourself with disappointment,” he says. “Vanya’s on the cusp of that; he’s opened something in his head that he’s got to sort out.”

That insight is typical of Jones. Now 54, he’s a superb actor, effortlessly versatile and much in demand…

“It’s my job to be as specific as I can,” he says. “I’m always looking for what Lecoq would call space. Where is there space in this sad character to be joyous? Where is the room in this character who feels ugly to feel beautiful? You’re always looking for the extra space so you can complicate in a way that isn’t in the text but is suggested by the text.”…

“‘Will theatre survive?’ is not even a question,” he says. “Theatre’s been through plagues before, through wars before — theatre survives, whatever. Whether theatres survive is a different issue. Some of these fantastic spaces in which theatre happens are in extreme jeopardy. What’s so hard is that it sometimes feels like they’re having to justify themselves. I don’t think theatre is something you should have to justify. It’s too useful — too essential to human beings.” “.

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