13 February 2020, The Tablet

Prophetic plotting


Prophetic plotting

Toby Jones and Rosalind Eleazar in Uncle Vanya
Photo: Johan Persson


Uncle Vanya
Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Old Vic, London

Even the least polished crystal ball could predict that many new plays about climate change are currently being written, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by the prophetic powers of playwrights who addressed the subject many decades ago.

In a powerful example of classic plays taking fresh meaning from the time of their revival, a knowing ripple is detectable in 2020 audiences when the people in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1899) lament that the Russian forests are disappearing and that birds are no longer heard locally, and characters in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) observe that the waves have stopped and the Sun is mis-orbiting.

The Beckett lines are exactly as he wrote them, their prescience due to his having drawn on the widespread fear, at the time he was writing, of the planet’s destruction by nuclear war. As English-speaking theatre gets Chekhov in translation – this latest version is by Conor McPherson, writer of the modern masterpiece, The Weir – there is more scope for nudging the text towards later concerns. However, the fact that these long-ago Ukrainians seem to have been reading Greta Thunberg is not entirely an interpolation. The loss of the forests is in the original, reflecting changes – caused by industrialisation and urbanisation – that would be one driver of the Russian revolution, which, we now know, is coming to engulf the family on their estate.

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