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25 November 2021

Pandemic theatre: Staging Uncle Vanya in lockdown

Dr Anna Bean

Educator Success Specialist, Digital Theatre+

Uncle Vanya | Sonia Friedman Productions © Johan Persson

Uncle Vanya | Sonia Friedman Productions © Johan Persson

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As a theatre teacher, one of the biggest joys and challenges is producing and directing plays, reviews, and musicals. Enabling students to showcase their hard work in a seemingly magical performance was one of my accomplishments as a secondary school teacher until I attempted to create live student theatre during the pandemic in the fall of 2020.

I did not know which students would be in each class and rehearsal on an hourly basis. As a theatre department of one, I sought advice online. I soon realized the universal cry from drama teachers: How can I do a musical, play, or rehearsal under these conditions? In my case, those state-mandated conditions for theatre classes and rehearsals were: everyone must wear their mask at all times, no one could project in the direction of another person, and everyone must remain at least six feet apart. Also, no one could be in the wings or eat or drink in the auditorium or use the restroom when someone else was in there. And, lest I forget, there could be no singing or live musicians, even masked. Even after 30 years of teaching, I could not come up with a viable performance solution. 

The professional theatre industry experienced a similar, immediate shutdown of live performance in March 2020. Yes, the cast of Hamilton sang beautifully in a well-edited, at-home YouTube video of Helpless. But they could not restage the entire musical because, in the end, there is no substitute for the visceral give-and-take that actors, directors and crew have when they put on a live performance. 

So, when I learned that Digital Theatre+ had acquired Sonia Friedman Productions and Angelica Films' production of Uncle Vanya, filmed during the pandemic summer of 2020, I will fully admit I was sceptical about its ability to transcend my perceived need of theatrical liveness. I am happy and immensely grateful to the producers, actors, designers, and crew who observed COVID-19 protocols and worked without the instant feedback of an audience to produce for film, Conor McPherson's adaptation of this highly relevant, for-our-time play. Though the production opened two months before the lockdown and the original play dates back to 1899, in its new, 2020-world pandemic context, the words of Anton Chekhov's play are even more laden with poignancy. Richard Armitage's Dr. Astrov speaks of his complete and constant exhaustion to the sympathetic Nana:

"During Lent earlier this year I went up to Malitskoi. A typhus epidemic. They’d thrown all of the sick ones into huts. Side by side. People on the floor. Pigs coming in and out. Filthy. Depressing. I didn’t stop all day. Nothing to eat until I got home. Could hardly stand. 'Bang, bang, bang' on the door. And they carry in this... boy. Trainee signalman. Stock car sliced off half of his foot. I got him on the table and quickly gave him the chloroform and he-he just died. Right there. Just when you could really do without them, all my feelings came back." 

– Dr. Astrov, Uncle Vanya I.i.

2_TobyJonesRichardArmitage_CreditJohanPersson (1)Toby Jones as Uncle Vanya and Richard Armitage as Dr. Astrov © Johan Persson

I have seen countless versions of the play, live and recorded, throughout my career as a director and educator. Yet, I understand Dr. Astrov's anguish with new emotional depth in this broadcast production. This play, written in 1894 by the slowly dying Chekhov, gave voice to familiar sensations and sentiments I previously believed were unique to our life during this pandemic, but in fact, they are not. Exhausted Dr. Astrov is the voice of all the medical personnel I knew personally or saw in images, hunched over carts, improbably asleep. In another scene, stir-crazy Helena paces the confines of one room and says, "How are we going to live during a whole winter here?" To which her home-bound stepdaughter Sonia responds: "There’s lots to do," while doing nothing. How many of us uttered similar words to our loved ones or the quiet loneliness of our isolated spaces?

This production of Uncle Vanya answers the questions I could not answer as an educator and director one year ago. What does pandemic theatre look like, and how can it be powerful enough to move us as if we were in the theatre space ourselves? 

Sonia Friedman Productions and Angelica Films' Uncle Vanya, starring Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, is now available on Digital Theatre+. If you are not yet a customer and would like to access this production, please get in touch with a member of our team today.