The Welkin – National Theatre
I looked it up. Apparently, a welkin is ‘the heavens’, the ‘vault of the sky’, ‘the place where the gods live’, and various other vague definitions. What I can’t work out is what a welkin has to do with the very good play currently at the National which is about an 18th century woman on trial for murder. She has been found guilty and will soon be transported to Australia unless she can prove she is with child, as she claims. The law does not permit punishment of a pregnant woman, either by hanging or deportation. How to decide if she is telling the truth or lying to escape justice?
The judge convenes a panel of 12 local married women who will examine the woman and advise him on his verdict. It’s not going to be easy. There is no such thing as a pregnancy test in 18th century England, she is not ‘showing’, there is yet no milk in her breasts. All they can do is talk to her and to each other. The women are of different ages and vary widely as to status. The highest class member is housekeeper to a local gentry, one is wife to a gardener in the nearest stately home while another is the local midwife and the others are wives to local men. They are young and old, experienced and newly married, mothers of many children and, in one case, barren, in another, newly bereaved.
They are the women of the neighbourhood, a town on the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. They were the property of their fathers until they married and then, of their husbands. They take no part in the momentous changes that are happening in the world but they have certainly heard of them. Their domain is domestic although many women work. They are weavers, seamstresses, laundresses and midwives, and as such are closely tied to the events in their towns and villages. Few women can read but literacy is flourishing in the Georgian era, and some more far-seeing husbands can see the point of having a wife who knows her letters and can keep the farm and household accounts. The women on the judge’s panel, therefore, are far from ignorant and can sense the loosening of the conventions keeping them captive within an entirely male environment.
It is this awakening, never stated, that gives this play its life. These respectable married women are beginning to chafe, ever so slightly, against the chains that bind them. Given the right to make a momentous decision over the life of another woman, they begin to understand what might be possible in the future, not for them, but for their daughters. Each is carefully delineated as individuals by the playwright Lucy Kirkwood, as they introduce themselves in a very funny opening scene. There is considerable interest in the fate of the accused and the arguments put forward in her favour and against her, but the real fascination is to watch the womens' world change, ever so slightly, through their examination of a conundrum which cannot be proven either way until the end of the play.
If you are seeing parallels with the movie 12 Angry Men in which one member of a jury holds out for a Not Guilty verdict in the face of all 11 of the others, you are not far from it. The plot is a sort of 18th century version of that cliff-hanger movie. The holdout in The Welkin is the local midwife, energetically played by Maxine Peake, supported by a stage full of the best female actors in England, and the end is never in doubt although it is fun getting there.
Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre
Don’t groan. Yes, it’s another Chekhov revival. But this one is definitely worth your time and money. Only the best revivals give you a play you thought you knew as if for the first time. This new Uncle Vanya at the Pinter, starring Toby Jones, is directed by Ian Rickson with a warmth and delicacy that retains all of Chekhov’s compassion, with a fresh and sometimes startling view of a world about to end.
I don’t make a habit of going to cemeteries but visiting the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow, a fellow tourist asked what we did for a living. We both write about the theatre, I said, and he immediately suggested we would enjoy visiting the adjoining graveyard. Anton Chekhov is buried there, he told us, other interesting people too, and it is right next door. As soon as we entered the grounds, we almost bumped into one of my heroes, the ballerina Galina Ulanova, a lifesize white marble statue. In a corner of her elaborate tombstone I noticed a tiny carved bird.
Wandering around, without a map or any sense of direction, we found all the famous Russian politicians– Khrushchev, Yeltsin, Molotov, even Bulganin – but, more importantly to us, we found Chekhov and every Russian musician, actor, director and writer we’d ever heard of and every one of these artists had a tiny bird incised on their tombstones. Why? Despite the Monastery being the third most popular tourist attraction in Moscow, the cemetery has no indication as to why there is a bird on all the artists’ tombs but none on those of the politicians. In a moment of revelation my husband said, “I think it’s a seagull. It’s a way for artists to identify with their greatest playwright, Anton Chekhov.” And, of course, it is and the little seagull carving is just one indication of the reverence in which he is held by other artists even today.
In his lifetime, Chekhov wrote hundreds of short stories, essays, articles for popular and literary magazines and he somehow found time to qualify as, and practice as, a physician. There are also a number of plays, the number is disputed, but four which have become classics and are constantly revived all over the world – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. At any moment, indeed, at this moment, the National Theatre has a production of Three Sisters with an all-black cast, the Almeida has just closed another Three Sisters, Emilia Clarke is about to lead the cast in a new production of The Seagull in the West End, and there’s a new production of The Cherry Orchard opening at the Roundabout in New York.
So, given all this activity over the past hundred years, during which these plays have never been out of the repertoire, why do Uncle Vanya again? Because, in common with every other great play, it has something to say to our generation that has never been said before. If a good play can be said to hold up a mirror to its own time, then a great play can offer a picture of all times. Uncle Vanya is different to us than it was to our parents’ generation because their experiences were different from ours. And, when it was first produced, at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 to huge acclaim, audiences immediately recognised it for the realistic masterpiece it was and Maxim Gorky wrote to Chekhov, after first seeing the play, “I trembled in admiration of your talent…. How magnificently you struck at the heart of things here, and how much to the point!”
In Ian Rickson’s new production Toby Jones magnificently embodies the sad, furious middle-aged man who has come to regret devoting his life to the running of a rural estate on behalf of his pompous brother-in-law. During the course of the play, when it is too late to change, he resents his lack of love, lack of a wife and a life of his own. Only when his brother-in-law, the selfish Professor Serabryakov (a majestic Ciaran Hinds), returns to the family home with a beautiful new bride does he realise that his life has been wasted in service to a man, a family, and a place that are not worthy of him. Inevitably, he falls in love with the new bride, Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), as does every other person on the estate. But the beautiful Yelena is merely a blank sheet on which everybody paints their own needs and desires. Vanya’s niece, Sonya, (Aimee Lou Wood, the only miscasting in an otherwise exemplary company) wants Yelena to intercede for her with the local doctor, Astrov, perhaps Sonya’s last chance for love, whereas Astrov (Richard Armitage) wants her to rescue him from the boredom of a rural practice in a district where the trees he loves are being destroyed by indifference and bureaucratic indolence. Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall), the family retainer, merely wants her to eat dinner at the proper time.
As has happened many times since Uncle Vanya’s 1898 premiere, the play has a new adaptation. Because the play itself is so solid, with characters and plot so clearly defined by Chekhov, a world of good playwrights have attempted new adaptations. This one, by the Irish writer Conor McPherson, is one of the best. Without destroying the gentle atmosphere of regret in the original, McPherson has injected enough humour and good nature into his adaptation that its only tragedy emerges from the characters and the dialogue, not from the situation. This is a thoroughly satisfying evening in the theatre.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.