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Enduring Sam Mendes

Chekhov and Shakespeare for Americans.

By 3.6.03

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As I was coming out of Sam Mendes's production of Uncle Vanya starring Simon Russell Beale and Emily Watson -- brought over (along with Twelfth Night) from the Donmar Warehouse in London and running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Sunday -- I overheard one of my fellow theater-goers saying to a companion: "So Russian, all that stuff about 'enduring.'"

At this my lungs began to crow like chanticleer, so delightful seemed to me the sublime unconsciousness of the young lady that it was she who was proclaiming her national origin to a far greater degree than Chekhov ever did. "We're American," she might just as well have added. "We don't do endurance."

And, of course, we don't. What a clown, that Vanya (Mr. Russell Beale) must have seemed to her. Why didn't he just sue the phony old professor (David Bradley) who had taken advantage of his good nature and the professor's frigid bitch of a wife (Helen McCrory)? You might almost say that, looked at from this quintessentially American point of view, the whole play hardly makes sense. What did Sonja (Miss Watson) and Vanya think they were doing trying to work a farm that didn't pay any better than that? Did that doctor (Mark Strong) shut himself away in the country and make himself miserable just so he could plant a few trees?

Yet there is something of the American spirit lying behind this production of the play, and even more so behind its Shakespearean twin, Twelfth Night. Both are plays about romantic stalemate: everyone loves someone who doesn't love him and no one loves anyone who loves her. And in both there may be a kind of implied reproach to those who persist in an unrequited passion, for all the pathos of their disappointment, that caught the eye of the director of American Beauty. At any rate, it comes across more clearly from Mr. Mendes than it does from Chekhov or Shakespeare on the page.

In Twelfth Night, the problem is that all the lovers idealize their cruel or unconscious inamorata, something Mendes represents by means of a large, empty picture-frame at the back of the stage, into which each lover takes turns stepping. The image becomes the tyrant of the lover's imagination; the real person has already gone off to idealize someone else. In Uncle Vanya, the self-deceptions are more deeply rooted -- to the point where they hardly seem to have anything to do with love at all but rather with a kind of neurotic determination on the part of Vanya, Sonja and the Doctor, at least, only to want the things they cannot have.

Both productions are first rate, mainly on account of the performances of Mr Russell Beale, who plays Malvolio in Twelfth Night with the effeminate fussiness that only a big man can bring to the role. I wasn't so impressed by Miss Watson's Viola, perhaps because she is too feminine and lacks some of the tomboyish, epicene quality required for the role. But the music is wonderful and the songs, sung in an accomplished baritone by Anthony O'Donnell as Feste, are positively heart-rending.

Some reviewers have made much of Mr. Mendes's tapping into "the dark side" of Twelfth Night, and perhaps Shakespearean comedy in general, in this production, but he is firmly in the mainstream of the stage tradition of (at least) the last thirty or forty years. Indeed, it would be a truly revolutionary production that tried to find its way back to the view of the play, formerly quite common, as something not far off a knockabout farce. I almost doubt that it would be possible.

A few false notes are struck, most notably when Olivia, played by Miss McCrory, delivers her shame-faced speech about giving the ring to Viola ("What might you think?/Have you not set mine honour at the stake/And baited it with all th'unmuzzled thoughts/That tyrannous heart can think?") in her underwear! Trust Sam Mendes to have paid no attention to the words where they have any reference to chastity or modesty. In that, at least, and in spite of its British origins, these are productions that belongs much more to America -- which is to say Hollywood -- than to "Old Europe."

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.