A critic’s an audience member, but is that all he or she is? That was the only question rattling through my mind as I watched the company that the Donmar Warehouse had assembled for Sam Mendes’s farewell productions troop through its paces. Because if critics are more than simply audience members, if they’re the voice of expertise or experience or deep analysis or whatever, then at least one working definition of a critic is: a person who has seen Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya many times before, and is in no hurry to wave superlatives around when yet another rendition of these familiar and much-loved works arrives. Superlatives, at least by this definition of criticism, should be reserved for the really overpowering occasions when an actor, or a director, or a company, either shows you something you never realized about the old work, thereby making it a new work, or else shows you what you always knew to be true about it with such force that your whole sense of it is rejuvenated—another way of making it new.
As you’ve guessed by now, neither of these things happened to me at the Donmar Warehouse productions. This is not a condemnation; they happen very infrequently to experienced theatergoers at familiar plays. After a few encounters, even a great work may still delight but can hardly surprise you. Or so you think until the next great occasion comes along, and some artist possessed by the acumen or the fervor of a faith that you are ceasing to feel proceeds to knock your socks off with brilliance. It can happen on any occasion, and in the most improbable contexts—and I speak with the authority of one who learned to love A Doll’s House again while watching Pakistani actors perform it in Urdu.
That Sam Mendes and his troupe are not the artists to make me love two plays I’ve seen both more often and more recently than A Doll’s House is no dire reflection on them. Their work struck me as mostly moderate, honest, and not overpoweringly impressive—which is to say, a good deal better than a lot of dishonestly overpraised work brought over from England in recent years. If you had never seen Uncle Vanya or Twelfth Night, the productions made reasonable, if somewhat austere, introductions. If they are plays you encounter rarely, the productions would stand as good reminders, hinting at the greatness in the texts even if rarely touching it. There is no shame in that—certainly nothing like the ineptitude that made Adrian Noble’s Royal Shakespeare Company productions such a glaring embarrassment. No regional theater in America or England would have felt awkward about offering its subscribers such productions. The awkwardness is vested in the reviewers, here and in London, who tumbled over themselves with ecstasies of praise and Olivier Award nominations, as if they and not the subscribers were the untutored theatergoers. Actually, I think the subscribers are probably wiser; certainly they know more about these plays, at least in cities where the larger resident theaters produce classic plays more regularly than commercialized New York does.
Even in resident theaters, though, the rotating-rep system has largely disappeared, and the fact that Donmar’s two productions were being given on alternate nights probably added to their puzzling cachet. I probably have an unfair advantage over my colleagues here, having spent a decade and a half of my young adulthood working in rotating rep, which means I demand even more from artists who work in it, though I know the difficulties involved only too well. I also know—a point other reviewers grasped too dimly to make—that it is, for my money, the only way actors can ever season themselves to achieve greatness, and the optimal way for both actors and audiences to learn what greatness is. I grew up watching repertory companies—Eva le Gallienne’s, Jean-Louis Barrault’s, William Ball’s ACT, the APA—and the only joy I know that improves on watching such a company at its peak is being involved with one.
In a way, Mendes’s project is inimical to rep. While the normal aim of performing several plays at once is to display the company’s varied skills and breadth of sensibility, the idea here, underscored by the parallel casting, is to stress the similarity of the two plays’ substance. A line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, “O learn to read what silent love hath writ,” is projected over the stage at the start of both plays, and Mendes sustains the same stark, emotionally blunt tone pretty much through both, relieved, as you might expect, by slightly more pathos in Vanya and slightly more comedy in Twelfth Night. The quotation is an odd choice. “Silent love” is certainly an important aspect of both plays, but is the injunction to “learn to read” directed at the audience or the characters? (It’s also somewhat ungracious of Mendes to choose a sonnet that famously opens with the image of a flustered actor forgetting his lines.) We hardly need the cue, since both scripts constantly make us privy to the characters’ unspoken feelings, and Mendes compounds the confusion by directing as if both called for the same tactics: His Chekhov is played heavily on the line, with little attention to what might be going on underneath the text—he reserves that kind of nuance for Shakespeare, adding emotionally laden pauses to what’s already carefully spelled out in words.
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.
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.