Do not let whatever follows deter you from seeing the Donmar Warehouse’s Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. Sam Mendes’s soigné mountings with accomplished casts offer many a damask cheek and relatively few warts. Mendes is an ultraclever director, full of arch, zany ideas that, when they work, astound, but when, more rarely, they misfire, are irritants. Very few crash in Vanya, rather more in Twelfth Night, though in neither case do they detract enough to make these two masterpieces less than the miracles they are. The Vanya is an adaptation, which I usually deplore, but when the adapter is Brian Friel, one of our finest Anglophone playwrights, no damage to the damask is done, and some benefits even accrue.
The plays feature minimal décor, which in Vanya is no more than a very long table and many chairs, an upright piano, lots of tall grasses in the back, and a few props. But Mendes, with the help of Hugh Vanstone’s masterly lighting, makes this accommodate whatever scene change is needed. For starters, when the characters sit around effusing about Yelena’s beauty, she flits among them in an airy gown and broad-brimmed hat that hides her inclined face. Until the unveiling, immersed in the impotent expectancy that is the keynote of the play, we are on tenterhooks to see that heralded loveliness. Happily, Helen McCrory doesn’t disappoint.
In Twelfth Night, however, such artfulness can backfire, and I don’t mean only the Mel Brooks–ish farts Sir Toby lets rip. The chief décor is a huge picture frame that stays throughout upstage center, with one or another main character immobilized within as a living statue, er, portrait. If one works hard, one can project some meaning onto this, but it remains mostly frippery. And is there any need for Olivia, courting Cesario, to shed her long mourning cloak and stand revealed in diaphanous black underwear?
All through both plays, however, Mendes provides a feast of little touches as compelling as they are ingenious, reinforcing and furthering the action. It can be a bit of inventive blocking, a surprising gesture, an unexpectedly insinuating inflection. And almost all the actors contribute abundantly. Emily Watson, through sheer talent, becomes a mousy Sonya or an enchanting Viola-Cesario with equal effortless radiance. Though I find his looks wanting, Mark Strong is a virile Orsino and a superbly versatile Astrov. Although not as ideally suited to Feste as he is to Waffles, Anthony O’Donnell acquits himself handsomely as both. Cherry Morris is a winning Marina (what diction!), and Helen McCrory, although somewhat too throaty as Olivia, is a dream Yelena. But the revelation is David Bradley as Serebryakov and Aguecheek. These two antithetic characters are created with such riches of detail, so many nonstop inventions that, handled with Bradley’s connoisseurship, become exultantly right.
The regrettable exception is the highly touted Simon Russell Beale, who is effete and obese, which may be forgiven, and unctuously, self-intoxicatedly hammy, which may not. He does get effects across, but one is always clobbered with his contrivance, his calculatedness; Vanya, who surely deserves our sympathyperhaps even Malvolio, dittonever wins it.
Trevor Griffiths’s alternatingly hilarious and hard-hitting Comedians gets a powerful revival from Scott Elliott and the New Group. This very British play could become either too elusive or too obvious, neither of which obtains here. The seedy Manchester classroom and garish nightclub are expertly captured by Derek McLane’s scenery, and the funny, piteous, and scary events on it are cannily directed and acted. As the aging master guiding his unruly protégés in a competition, Jim Dale is both sharply incisive and quietly poignant, and the others, notably Allan Corduner as a Jewish stand-up, are all splendid. Raúl Esparza, as a ferociously bitter comic, gives one of the most flawless, indelibly etched performances I’ve ever seen.