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Groundhog nights in the theatre

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Of course it is only something that will happen to a theatre critic, but the new West End production of Uncle Vanya that opened at the Vaudeville last Friday is the 6th I’ve seen this year already, following on from ones in Belfast, Chichester, London’s Print Room, and two in New York (at Off-Broadway’s Soho Rep and in a Lincoln Center Festival transfer of Sydney Theatre Company’s production). And, by even more curious coincidence, yet another Uncle Vanya even opened in the West End last night, just three nights after this one, when a Russian-language production began a season at the Noel Coward.

It is clearly the play of my year, though sadly, not, the production of it of the year for me, as I commented in my Stage review yesterday of the one at the Vaudeville. It doesn’t help that I have a bank of so many recent memories to choose from: Conleth Hill’s brooding but quietly raging Vanya at Belfast and Roger Allam’s loudly furious Vanya at Chichester, Charlotte Emmerson’s wonderful, wounded Sonya and David Yelland’s tersely drawn Professor at the Print Room and Cate Blanchett’s radiant, captivating Yelena in the Sydney Theatre Company production.

Indeed, even sitting in the Vaudeville one is minded to recall more distant memories of a 1988 production at the same address of a production that featured Michael Gambon as Vanya, Imelda Staunton as Sonya and Jonathan Pryce as Astrov.

But that is also the pleasure of the theatre: serial encounters with the same great story, presented in sometimes startlingly different ways, that jostle in the memory, even as a new production is wiggling its way into your mind. On one bulletin board this weekend, however, I saw one commentator complaining,

Theatre is so grossly overrated. Give me good telly any day. I mean seriously: one story, done over and over and over again? It’s like taking one good episode of Coronation Street and playing it over and over. Or reshooting it with a different cast and different direction. So bloody what? “Classic” theatre, my arse…

Actually, Hollywood does that all the time: re-making classic films again. So it isn’t just the theatre that does this. But it’s also the case that one of the key pleasures of theatre that it is not ‘locked in’ to one interpretation forever but always remains a living art, changing not just from production to production but even night to night.

As such, too, it is susceptible to disruptions on both sides of the footlights: the first night of the National’s Scenes from an Execution, for instance, saw the set break down towards the end, and part of the drama of the evening was seeing how the cast and stage management dealt with it.

And every night, of course, we are different people, too: last weekend I saw Billy Elliot again at the Victoria Palace, and more or less sobbed my way right through it. A friend remarked in the interval that use of codeine painkillers, like I’m on for my hip at the moment, is prone to make one more emotional; but it wasn’t just that. I hadn’t seen the show for a couple of years, and suddenly felt overwhelmed by its portrait of the passing of one way of life – coalmining in Tyneside – but also the adoption of a new way of self-expression that young Billy takes to so unexpectedly yet so beautifully.

Great art forges unexpected connections between its spectator and the story it is telling, and Billy Elliot is a great musical.

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