Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Brian Friel
It is already apparent that Sam Mendes' return from Hollywood for his final two plays at the Donmar are the hottest tickets in London. On the strength of his production of Irish playwright Brian Friel's new version of Uncle Vanya, they should be.
The acting is tremendous from the whole cast, with Simon Russell Beale inevitably outstanding in the title role but others doing almost as good a job. Russell Beale conveys the frustration of a man trapped by unrequited love, boredom and poverty. There are many moving and insightful moments, for example when he rolls at Yelena's feet like a devoted puppy and literally allows his love to walk over him.
Emily Watson's performance as Sonya brings a lump to the throat on a couple of occasions: first as she realises that her love for the doctor (Mark Strong) is not reciprocated, and then as she mothers Vanya at the end of the play.
Mendes is clearly master of this space, with which he is so familiar, and manipulates his characters to good effect. The way in which the stable, happy life of the fading estate is wrecked by the arrival of David Bradley's fraudulent professor and his sultry young wife (Helen McRory as Yelena) is profoundly realised.
The men fall into lunacy and the women pine. The world is bizarrely held together by the wise old nanny and the hilariously boring Waffles. Cherry Morris and Anthony O'Donnell make the most of these two character parts, never failing with their comic timing.
This version combines much droll humour with heart-rending analysis of the end of an era for the rich in Russia. Love always equates to pain and the best that one can hope for is to endure this life while waiting to go to a better place.
While the run sold out months ago, the Donmar does sell a few tickets at 10a.m. and returns, if any, at the door. To see Mendes' last efforts at the Donmar and Russell Beale leading a strong cast is surely worth an hour or two of queuing.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher