Stock Manipulations

Is It Reinventing, or Just Recycling?

Though puzzling, this topsy-turvy approach leads to no revelations and startlingly few surprises. Each production has an object at its focal center. Twelfth Night is built around a giant empty frame, used by Mendes alternately to suggest a mirror and a picture, at all the predictable times: Olivia appears framed in it when Orsino talks about his love, Sebastian when Viola talks about her loss and her ambiguous gender, etc., etc. Vanya's four settings are rolled into one multi-purpose limbo, dominated by a long wooden table, that would suggest the first read-through of a new script if not for a field of knee-high shrubbery upstage, through which the characters occasionally wander. This is commendably simple (and inexpensive), but also seems a bit grudging, and occasionally makes for very un-Chekhovian absurdities. (Why is the piano on the veranda?) None of it would matter if the performers could use it as a springboard to greatness.

And occasionally they do. The one gleaming link in this solid but largely unimpressive chain is Emily Watson's Viola, demure but just pert enough, delicate but strong, gracefully spoken, and conveying the "silent love" Mendes wants us to contemplate with a steady growth from her first sight of Orsino. I wish I could say her Sonya had anything in common with it, but that performance struck me as one long self-pitying snivel, further waterlogged by an inexplicable London working-girl accent that has nothing to do with either Sonya's class or her isolated rural life. There was certainly nothing in it to equal Amy Ryan's Sonya, the saving grace of the otherwise disastrous Vanya at the Roundabout a few years back. But falling into the self-pity trap is all too easy in Chekhov, than whom no writer demands sharper turns from actors or more careful nuancing from directors. Nuancing, however, isn't Mendes's métier: He seizes the obvious and plays it hard. Few other directors have invited Vanya to march up to the Professor and shoot at him at point-blank range, for the good reason that it makes not only Vanya, but Chekhov, look rather stupid when he misses. Well, Simon Russell Beale doesn't mind looking stupid; he is an actor who, I gauge, likes extravagance of any kind. And there are worse things for an actor to like. The irony is that Beale's gifts as an actor are his solidity and his aura of good sense—when he tries to be extravagant, lying on the floor as Vanya or pulling himself up to monstrous haughty quietude as Malvolio, you see him setting up the effect a long time in advance, so that its arrival is all too predictable. Playing more spontaneously, as in some of Vanya's quieter moments, he can genuinely move you; it's only the visible contriving that weakens his work.

Strong and Watson in Mendes's Shakespeare: gender is the night.
photo: Stephanie Berger
Strong and Watson in Mendes's Shakespeare: gender is the night.

Details

Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Brian Friel
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
718-636-4100

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Mark Strong, the interesting and forceful actor who played Astrov and Orsino, took an opposite tack to Beale's, making his two roles virtually identical; I should like to see what results a different director might get from him. Helen McCrory, as Yelena and Olivia, altogether dismayed me, catching a number of apt and even moving moments in each role, and then lapsing from them into harsh-voiced, ludicrously ill-timed touches that suggested a TV actress reading cues off an idiot card, with no sense of playing a role at all. Two actors' good work suggested gifts dampened by Mendes's approach: David Bradley, as Serebryakov and Aguecheek, gave off glints of a comic brio he wasn't asked to display; Anthony O'Donnell, a good musician as well, offered a grave, muted Feste (very chic these days) and an equally grave, slightly less muted Waffles. At least part of my frustration with the experience comes from a sense that their gifts, like the richness of the plays, were left untapped. Why did Mendes choose them, or these particular plays? He may love both greatly, but to keep that love so close to silent guarantees that no corresponding love will be awakened in the audience—not, at least, where we have loved so often before.

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