Not Waving But Immersing

Four Uncle Vanyas in a year is too many, but better Chekhov in Russian than ‘immersive theatre’

Anne McElvoy

Uncle Vanya has been much revived this year, to my mind most memorably with Iain Glen in the lead in an energetic production at the tiny Print Room studio theatre in Notting Hill, and Roger Allam as a more brooding incarnation in Chichester. Now Russia’s grumbliest uncle is back at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. And the Moscow Vakhtangov Theatre’s production had a brief run at the Noël Coward Theatre. 

The Vaudeville’s production, directed by Lindsay Posner, achieved immediate notoriety when the director Sir Peter Hall mumbled throughout the press night about the production “not working” and interrupted the final speech by Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael, shouting “Stop!”. Not since Augusto Boal gave Brazil his Theatre of the Oppressed, in which peasants and trade unionists were encouraged to shout out corrections to actors portraying their lives, have we had such unscripted excitement.

Nobly, Sir Peter insists it was merely old age which made him interrupt. More likely it was his theatrical subconscious. Ken Stott’s incarnation of the fractious uncle, briefly deranged by desire and revenge, was solid, if featureless. I liked Sam West as a chilly progressive Astrov, keen on saving trees, not so good with people. Like Sheridan Smith’s 40-watt Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, Anna Friel (Yelena) did not quite grasp the importance of her role as the catalyst of near-disaster. The point of Yelena’s lethargy is to embody something bigger and more troubling about the decaying feudalism of Russia. Friel is luminous and wearily sensual, but she doesn’t linger in the mind as one of Chekhov’s femmes fatales should. 

The Vakhtangov’s Russian-language production, directed by the Lithuanian Rimas Tuminas, was true to the theatre’s Expressionist tradition: a stripped-back production with not a samovar in sight and characters moving like mannequins around a set illuminated by an unforgiving white moon. Tuminas pushed the story to breaking point with sexual fumblings, all-round hysteria and Vanya resorting to the stolen morphine. It looked striking, but too stylised to move this soul.

Speaking of moral torpor and grand dynasties in decline, the British media landscape of the early 21st century gets its first comeuppance since the hacking scandal in   Enquirer from Vicky Featherstone’s National Theatre of Scotland. It’s a “verbatim” play, (and what isn’t these days?), culled from interviews conducted by real journalists, interviewing other journalists about the shortcomings of their industry. And what a miserable view it is. Morality plays about journalists come along  periodically, from David Hare’s Pravda in the Eighties to this reckoning with the tabloid culture whose excesses gave us a Fleet Street meltdown, humble pie from the Murdochs and Lord Leveson’s punitive inquiry.

It’s not wholly wrong in holding up a self-satisfied industry to brutal gaze, but it does so from the mighty highlands of left-liberal journalism looking down its nose at the newspapers the masses actually like reading. An able cast featured Billy Riddoch, James Anthony Pearson and Maureen Beattie as the hacks, trying to hold our attention in the “immersive” setting of an office block (Enquirer started life in a Scottish office block, then meandered south to the Trampery in Clerkenwell).

This meant we had to follow the action by shuffling from room to room and sit on piles of newspapers. What I like least about immersive theatre is that it rarely lives up to the name or the promise. At Enquirer neither were we immersed—just shunted awkwardly between scenes—nor at liberty to challenge what we were seeing. When one of the hacks asks if it isn’t the “fault” of readers that they prefer the Daily Mail to the Guardian by some considerable margin, we mere readers were not consulted. Add to this the sheer infantilism of a lot of the immersive shenanigans which unfailingly remind me of school trips in primary school. We were addressed by an orderly who warned us that we might have to move fast through the production (some hope, it turned out), and sit quite close to each other. Thrills! 

Immersiveness also sucked intellectual rigour out of a play which was already one-sided. The sole defender of popular journalism, Roger Alton of The Times and formerly editor of the Observer, was sent up as mendacious and evasive from the start, though he looked rather appealing to me compared with an erstwhile Express journalist whining that she couldn’t get the front page for a story about a massacre in East Timor because a royal engagement nabbed her glory-spot. Enquirer also mirrored a doleful tendency to see everything in decline and no potential in a new era of digital journalism. The mixture of sanctimony and self-interest was not an appealing one.

Clearly suffering from latent masochism, I accepted an invitation to another immersive event from the Secret Cinema club. It has thousands of mainly young Londoner adherents, and offers an evening of adventure, leading up to a “secret” screening of a film somewhere clandestine. We duly trudged to Hackney Library for a bit of stilted role-play about being American prisoners in the days of Prohibition, before shuffling on to a bus with darkened windows. “Keep your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front,” snapped an actor as we negotiated the wilds of E8. Halfway through all this the Talking Heads line “You may ask yourself, how did I get here?” snapped into my befuddled mind. Reader: I de-immersed, to the clear horror of the organisers, and got the first bus out. Doubtless most of the others went on to enjoy a film and meet other immersively obedient fans. In terms of any wider pretensions to enliven theatre, though, immersiveness feels like an idea whose time has come and gone rather fast.

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