An experience of Uncle Vanya

The culture: ‘Uncle Vanya’, by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Robert Icke, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view side seats (mostly fine but a poor view of the characters whenever they stepped outside of the box to soliloquise)

Even bad Chekhov hits me right in the guts. There’s something about the way he writes and effortlessly captures human experience in all its miserable beauty and beautiful misery that just reduces me to a quivering mess of existential crises every time. But the Almeida’s new Uncle Vanya isn’t bad Chekhov, it’s brilliant Chekhov, and I spent a surreal journey home on the Overground staring into the middle distance, hopeless and hopeful, surrounded by St Patrick’s Day drunks.

Robert Icke’s new version of the play updates it and chops it into pieces. The night is three intervals and over three hours long but doesn’t feel it. It opens on a hazy midsummer day with beautiful rich people languishing in the heat at their country house. They’re a middle-class cliché. I know these people and I dislike these people but I identify with almost every one of them. As the set slowly turns round and round (and round and endlessly round, it’s a metaphor, get it?), I slip into the production, lulled into a false sense of something by the sunny lighting and birdsong, and my personality, my being, is picked apart while I’m not paying attention. I see myself in them all. As the night progresses and the characters reveal their virtues and their flaws I’m confronted by myself at every turn of that really irritating creaking set. It’s claustrophobic and disgusting. It’s fascinating. They start to fall apart and so do I. Or at least we all start to realise that we were never ‘together’ in the first place.

There’s a stunning moment in which Uncle Vanya goes mental with a bunch of autumn roses and I want to be him, thrashing everything in sight out of pure frustration. I want to be Elena, beautiful and admired and lethargic and looking on horrified. I want to be Sonya, cowering in the corner, hiding from the sheer sorrow of it all. I am all of them, even the well-dressed great aunt who barely speaks. Even that chicken with a two minute cameo. Especially the grandmother who knits and drops occasional pearls of obscure wisdom. When the hot doctor’s morphine goes missing and the tension is ramped right up to really-fucking-unbearable I realise my knuckles are white and my nails are digging into my hands. It’s really that good. Those 3 hours could have been 3 days, 3 minutes, or 3 seconds. It’s really that good.

 

‘The Merchant of Venice’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆  

The culture: The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £17 partially restricted view seats. The pillars at the Almeida are a nightmare to negotiate but the one I was sat behind was only an issue once or twice. Otherwise nice and central in the stalls.

What’s a pound of flesh in a town where flesh can be bought by the dollar? What becomes of a debt on the casino floor where money flows like tap water? Those are the questions that Rupert Goold’s on the money Almeida revival of the RSC’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ asks, with all the confidence of its strutting showgirls. Swapping the Rialto Bridge and mercantile Venice for the seedy Rialto Hotel and the bright lights of the Vegas Strip, Shakespeare is plunged into a world of glitz, glamour, kitsch and camp with a hyper economy and an Elvis impersonator – who turns out to be none other than Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish).

The stakes may be higher, with $3million replacing the original’s mere three thousand ducats, but the terrible bond is the same as ever. If Antonio cannot repay the money he owes to Shylock for the loan his friend Bassanio took out to woo Portia then a pound of flesh will be cut from his chest. The modern day setting only makes this seem more barbaric.

The casket-based contest for Portia’s hand ingeniously becomes a game show called Destiny which she and Nerissa front. Playing the pair as deceptively ditzy and glamorous all-American girls flashing long legs in tight dresses, Susannah Fielding (Portia) and Emily Plumtree (Nerissa) reap in the laughs before flaunting their wittiness in their moments off camera and, of course, in the court scenes. Susannah Fielding’s Portia is a revelation.

Behind all the glitter this production is gutsy and provocative, wrestling with the issues of the play with intelligence and originality. It’s highly conceptual but in a way that suits the play perfectly and ‘The Merchant of  Venice’ emerges from the update totally reinvigorated by such deep consideration and questioning.

It’s all too easy for this play to be hijacked by its best known and most divisive character, Shylock, and Ian McDiarmid is brilliant all the way from his usuring high to his unbearable cowering low. But Goold’s production does not allow us to forget that this is ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and not ‘The Jew of Venice’. Scott Handy’s performance as that merchant, Antonio, is near faultless, as is the slow-building relationship between Antonio and Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones) which is delicately done and beautiful but still really hammers home the tragedy.

There are no winners at the end of a play so fraught with misery and almost all the assembled characters are looking heartbroken or lonesome by the time Elvis’ last song plays out. No winners, that is, but the audience, who really hit the jackpot with this production. There’s not a single moment that isn’t truly exciting: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ might just set your soul on fire. Viva Las Vegas!

‘King Charles III’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆

The culture: King Charles III, Wyndham’s Theatre

The cheap seats: £17.50 Balcony seats. Ok so these weren’t that cheap but they were the cheapest. At least the view is face on and central (unlike the cheap seats at Wyndham’s miserly neighbour the Noel Coward). The seats are far comfier, too.

I missed the Almeida run of Mike Bartlett’s acclaimed King Charles III, a dark and cheeky imagining of our future with Prince Charles as King, and spent quite a bit of the summer lamenting the passing of its Islington incarnation. So I was over the moon to hear it had been given a West End transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre – which has just been extended until the end of January – and booked tickets straight away. By the time Dominic Cavendish from The Telegraph said “attendance is compulsory” my excitement was pretty much unbearable.

King Charles III is one of the most intelligent pieces I’ve seen in a while. It’s riddled with Shakespeare references for those who choose to appreciate them but even without the allusions to the histories or Macbeth it’s a brilliant and biting satire, more relevant than ever today as the Scottish Independence Referendum looms.  The set vaguely resembles a privy chamber of an Elizabethan court, either a nod to old Bill Shakespeare or a snarky observation about how outdated the monarchy is. This Queen Elizabeth – II not I – has just died, leaving the man we call Prince Charles King. Tim Piggott-Smith plays the perpetually waiting Prince finally given his time to rule and he is sublime. The entire cast get their mannerisms down to a tee.

The post-Elizabeth England that Bartlett presents is very dark indeed. We assume that the role of a modern monarch is all the pomp and ceremony with little of the responsibility but as we watch Charles struggle to take the reigns and, err, rein, we see that the head of state is the linchpin of our British identity and not just an empty figurehead. At the helm of the national ship as it sails into an uncertain future, Charles declares himself a map. The people always come back to a map when the modern, techy sat navs go wrong, he believes, because a map is traditional, tried and tested. But a map is also really only a piece of paper and paper is very easy to tear. The first rips come early on when Charles is asked to sign off on his first laws. In King Henry IV Part II, the King says “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Charles’ head lies so uneasy that he struggles to raise it for the constitutional nod needed for Parliament’s demands – and that’s even before the weighty symbol of responsibility and power is ceremoniously plonked on his furrowed brow. Refusing to sign the privacy bill that would censor the press, he sets off the chain of events that form King Charles III and his own downfall.

But if Charles is the map then what is the sat nav that the people turn to instead? Parliament, perhaps? The play says no. I won’t give away its twists and turns for fear of spoiling it but, incredibly, its very real warning imagines a world worse than King Charles’ in a way that is incredibly provocative and very clever, if a bit far-fetched. Prince Harry is up to his usual caddish ways and falls in love with a common-er Commoner than Kate Middleton was, a back chatting art student in Doc Martens. Kate herself, meanwhile, is elevated beyond a pretty face atop a tiny, heir-producing body, becoming an ambitious and scheming Lady Macbeth figure. The unlikely voice of wisdom is a man in a kebab shop who doesn’t mince his words as he compares the state of the country to a slab of doner meat, sliced down further and further until nothing remains. Clever, very clever.

As the audience leave, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ is played. Does Bartlett say we don’t need a monarchy, “that kind of luxe just ain’t for us”? Not exactly, though King Charles III appears to flirt with the idea in places. Although his plot is a bit unfeasible and heavy handed the issues of fragile identity and an unknowable future are anything but. Ultimately the play asks: What becomes of our country when it is no longer the country we know? We may be forced to face that tough question sooner than Bartlett, or any of us, thought.