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Uncle Vanya (Donmar)

By • West End
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The second Chekhov opening in as many nights - with a third based on Chekhov characters to follow in Brian Friel's Afterplay - finds the rarely seen Ivanov (at the National) followed by the much more frequently performed Uncle Vanya (here at the Donmar). They make a fascinating pair: if stupefying boredom is the complaint of choice in the former, desperate unhappiness is the overriding theme of the latter.

"I am so unhappy," chants Simon Russell Beale's title character at the end of Uncle Vanya. "We must endure," replies his stoical niece, Sonya (Emily Watson, suppressing her natural radiance). Both have witnessed their illusions being shattered over the preceding two and a half hours.

Sonya's longing for the local doctor (Mark Strong) has gone unrequited, while he makes an early call for environmental concern over climate change that may result from the deforestation of the area. And Vanya's respect for the professor who runs the estate has been utterly destroyed, and he has seen the professor's young wife Yelena (Helen McCrory), whom he too desires, locked in a romantic embrace with the aforementioned doctor. Nobody, in short, is getting what he or she wants.

But London gets what it definitely wants: in Sam Mendes' penultimate production for the Donmar Warehouse that he has run like a firebrand for the last decade, we receive a production of infinite feeling and loving texture that illuminates this play from within. On a stage laid (by designer Anthony Ward) with overlapping faded Persian carpets and fringed around the circle with wheat grass, Mendes creates a beautiful picture of the dull emotional aches at the centre of these characters.

These are brought out by one of the richest casts in London right now. Russell Beale - in some ways plotting a similar path from self-loathing to contempt for others and a final outburst that he took as Felix Humble in his last London stage role in Humble Boy - is superb as Vanya, with Watson and McCrory dazzling in more understated ways as Sonya and Yelena. Around this central trio, there are also brilliant performances from Strong, David Bradley as the professor, Selina Cadell as the mother of the professor's first wife, Anthony O'Donnell as an impoverished landowner and Cherry Morris as an old nurse.

I have only one question: the programme calls this Uncle Vanya by Brian Friel, and then states on the next line: "A version of the play by Anton Chekhov". Since when has the authorship of this classic belonged to Friel rather than Chekhov?

- Mark Shenton


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