This play was written by Anton Chekhov over a period of many years, but completed in 1897 and performed in 1899 at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play focuses on the Voynitsky household, who have been plunged into turmoil by the appearance of the irritable Professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young wife Elena. "Uncle" Vanya Voynitsky is the professor's brother-in-law; the professor was once was married to Vanya's beloved, now deceased, sister, and it was to support the professor that Vanya sacrificed his adult life in hard work and privation. Other characters include the professor's diligent adult daughter Sonya and a doctor, Astrov, whose idealism has waned and who now spends much of his time drunk. Astrov and Vanya love Elena; Sonya loves Astrov. It is classic Chekhov: a tragic comedy of breakdowns and conversational cross-purposes caused by the loss of a full and meaningful life.
I have just seen two productions of this play: one live, performed by Toronto's acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company; and one filmed, Louis Malle's adaptation Vanya on 42nd St., which I had seen in the cinema in 1994 when it was new and just saw again on video.
The play that I just saw was certainly sad, but the pathos was punctuated by farcical moments of almost vaudevillian one-liners and slapstick, while the movie gave rather more prominent place to tears. One of my companions at the theatre, a recent arrival from the Czech Republic, related that he had seen the play in high school, when it was presented in a much more sober fashion than the version we saw. However, the program explained that Chekhov was dissatisfied with the Moscow Art Theatre's treatment of his plays as dramas, since he saw them as comedies. A quotation from Chekhov to another (unnamed) writer, reproduced in the program, reads:
"You tell me that people cry at my plays. I've heard others say the same. But that was not why I wrote them. It is Stanislavsky who made my characters into cry-babies. All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!' What is there to cry about?"
So Soulpepper, it seems, was closer to the mark.
For me, films are often preferable to plays, which can feel claustrophobic and artificial in a way movies do not. The exaggerated voices and actions of stage actors and the restricted space in which they must move often pales for me in comparison with the paradoxical intimacy of films, which can show a whole world of settings yet pull in to catch a whisper or a sigh that would be missed in a theatre setting. That was not the case here, though. The movie version of this play is set in a crumbling New York theatre, and the cramped space of the stage was compressed even further as the actors bunched up on a bench or sofa so that the camera could take in several faces at once. Soulpepper's version took place in a living room with faded carpet, ringed by a dirt "path" around which a servant pushed a wheelbarrow; the curtain was a sheet of plastic down which "rain" drizzled; the backdrop, a sheet which billowed in a storm. The actors moved around the stage, Elena not restricted to sitting on the bench watching Vanya rant, instead moving to the back to lean in an open doorway, boredom in every line of her body. The stage production seemed much more vital, much more alive, to me. I was surprised.
Having said all that, I well remember when I saw the film, for it was the first time I'd seen the luminously beautiful and talented Julianne Moore perform; I was stunned at how good she was, and she remained so at this second viewing. And Wallace Shawn as Uncle Vanya? Well, it's hard to believe a man so odd-looking, so short, so bald, and with such a nasal voice, can do more than be the Grand Nagus (which he does admirably), but he is very good in this role. The actors save the movie, but the concept of filming this play in this fashion was, I feel now, an interesting experiment which looks much less successful after seeing a virtuoso live performance.