Uncle Vanya at the cinema

This afternoon Mr Esther and I drove for an hour to the university town of Wageningen to see the filmed version of the Uncle Vanya stage play that I had seen live at the Harold Pinter theatre in London back in February. It was a bit of a weird experience. We parked, walked to the arthouse cinema that was showing the film, went straight in wearing our masks, took them off while we sat, saw the film and then immediately afterwards it was off home again.

No exploring around town where almost everything was closed, no drinks in a café beforehand, no sitting down at a restaurant for dinner afterwards, no socializing and maybe finding other Richard Armitage fangirls before or after the screening; we just drove in, saw the film and drove home again, like checking off a matter of business on a to do list. None of the joys surrounding such an event for a day out were to be had due to the semi lockdown Corona measures in The Netherlands. Yes, that felt weird but it was maybe also very fitting for the mood the play had left us in.

The cinema version of Uncle Vanya incorporated the empty Harold Pinter theatre at the beginning and the end of the play, which felt sad and almost a little eery. Due to the camera being right in there on stage and the very many close ups (be still my beating heart every time the camera was all zoomed in on Richard Armitage!) this felt even more initmate than it had felt back in February on stage in that relatively small theatre. The soliloquys directed in part straight to camera also gave it an initmate feel, it was as if the viewer was right there on the stage as well.

As I had seen the play before, I was curious to see what Mr Esther’s reaction would be to the play. He was struck by the desperation of the characters and how little change was possible for them but also by the references to climate change and how modern that seemed, along with how topical the references to a pandemic were. When the play was in the third act and it was mentioned that they were in September now and everything just seemed the same, day in and day out, Mr Esther turned to me and whispered, “This sounds just like 2020!”

As we discussed the characters afterwards, I realized that this time around I felt more empathy for Richard’s Dr. Astrov than I had back in February. His mention of coming through a pandemic, and how experiencing the death of a boy patient had finally broken him, just hit home more now than ever, now that we are also in a pandemic and we hear the harrowing stories of health care workers in hospitals. He also seemed less negatively pushy with Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) than I had remembered and the scene when he talks with her and flirts with her over the maps is just so good, with all the underlying tensions and emotions on display.

With Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), where in February his leading her on elicited gasps of frustration in the audience, this time around the reaction was not quite as strong, you just realized he could not give that kind of love to that young woman. Mr Esther admitted to even being glad those two didn’t end up together.

Also, his scenes with Vanya (Toby Jones), drunk or otherwise, were mesmerizing to watch.

Toby Jones as Vanya was just as heartbreaking and disappointed as I had remembered him and just as funny too. However, to me in this filmed version, his connection with Yelena was less close than it had seemed on stage in February. His desperation for her was still there but she seemed to reciprocate less than I remembered.

With all the actors, and most notably for me with Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) and Yelena, the emotions were far more there and well visible in the close ups. Especially Yelena was stronger here than I had remembered her on stage, more emotional and desperate than I remembered, yet just as much a fish out of water as she had been then. Mr Esther mentioned how he found it hardest to connect with her because we somehow get to know too little of her back story. Yet, her feeling trapped came across stronger than ever to me.

As for Sonya, I found her in general less patronizing than I had found her to sometimes be when I saw her live on stage and her monologue at the end was just as touching as I had found it live. The Professor (Roger Allam) was just as narcissistic and too self-obsessed to really care about the people’s lives around him, which somehow reminded me of certain world leaders. I could so identify with Uncle Vanya’s frustration with the Professor.

Mr Esther was most impressed by Toby Jones (he loves how expressive Jones is) and Richard Armitage in this. No, he did not say that just to please me. So, as a fangirl, it’s extra nice to hear such praise from a non-fangirl (or -boy) for my main actor squeeze. In the end, after all the desperation and midlife crisis elements in the story, he found that the most realistic and hopeful one of them all was also the youngest of them all, Sonya. We left the movie theatre feeling a little otherworldly and yet some of it had also felt so familiar.

We had some time to discuss all this on our hour long drive home and Mr Esther and I were very glad we had shared this experience with each other. We ordered sushi from the car which was delivered ten minutes after we arrived home…

We now move on back to real life, stuck at home again during this pandemic. Just as the Uncle Vanya characters, we are also not able to change much in our lives right now with the restrictions around us that are there to protect us all. To quote Sonya at the end of the play:

What can we do? We must live out our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings. We shall bear patiently the burdens that fate imposes on us. We shall work without rest for others, both now and when we are old.

And in the end we shall hope for the best.