Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is one of the toughest roles in the classic repertoire. Like many of the characters created by the playwright, Vanya is defeated by life. He has intellectual aspirations, but is stuck managing a Russian farm due to family obligations. His frustrations and anger focus on his brother-in-law, the stuffy professor Serbreykov, the widower of Vanya's sister, now married to the beauteous young Helena. Jealousy eats up Vanya as he is attracted to Helena and is furious that Sebreykov enjoys the adulation of sophisticates as well as that of his gorgeous younger wife. Vanya spends most of the play whining about his pitiable state, and in most productions, he comes across as a self-absorbed bore.
The acting trick here is that Vanya is a bore, a whiner, a big baby. But he is also human and suffering. The fact that he could help himself if only he were a touch more self-aware does not lessen his pain. Most actors fall into the trap of judging Vanya as a weak fool and playing him that way, giving the audience a dull time. By the end of the evening when he is sobbing and his niece Sonya, dealing with a heartache of her own, is counseling him with vague dreams of a better life in the hereafter, I am squirming in my seat, impatient for the curtain to fall on this blubbering wreck.
But in the recent Roundabout Theatre Company production on Broadway, I was in tears along with Vanya, played by the luminous Derek Jacobi. This British star found the humanity in this sniveling wretch and made him real rather than a subject of humiliation. Jacobi makes Vanya an intelligent man whose overweening love of his family causes his suffocation. He gives us Vanya's humanity rather than his vanity (there is that, too, but it's not emphasized as most others who have played the part do). We can also perceive his intelligence, which makes his unfulfilled dreams of writing and teaching that much more believable.
And this Vanya has a sense of humor about himself. Director Michael Mayer's staging, which leaned towards the comic, was blasted by many critics. But its humorous overtones made the sadness of the people's lives all the sadder. The critical brickbats may have been a factor in denying Jacobi a Tony nomination, but he did win an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk nomination.
Jacobi can also be seen revisiting ancient Rome-his haunt from I, Claudius days-in the current blockbuster Gladiator. Ridley Scott's intelligent epic features a understated and rich performance by the beefy Russell Crowe and a sinister, sneering one by Joaquin Phoenix. Jacobi plays a senator out to rid the Empire of corruption and re-establish the Republic. Amid the spectacle of crashing chariots and flowing togas, this knight rivets our attention because he plays the man as someone with a purpose, not just as a prop with a plummy accent to posh things up.
Two roles that are proof positive that the great Derek Jacobi is still at the top of his game.