Culture: Laugh at Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya'? I nearly cried

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The Independent Online

There's a moment towards the end of Uncle Vanya, Peter Hall's production of Chekhov's masterpiece at the newly restored Rose Theatre, when the title character announces that he's "depressed". This is hardly surprising, given that his detested brother-in-law has just departed with the love of his life. What is surprising is that this moment is greeted with laughter – or, at least, it was on press night. This is partly due to the delivery of Nicholas Le Provost (pictured), whose performance in the central role is so entertaining that you can't help but feel a frisson of pleasure whenever he opens his mouth, but it is also because the play itself manages to combine humour and pathos in equal measure.

Ever since Uncle Vanya was first performed in 1900, tragicomedy has been considered the highest of all the theatrical genres. As a member of the audience, there is something satisfying about not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Deep down, laughter and tears seem to originate in the same place and a piece of work that penetrates to that inner core makes a stronger impression than one that merely makes us feel happy or sad.

When it comes to cinema, the best comedies are those that constantly threaten to spill over into tragedy, such as The Apartment, Life Is Beautiful and Sideways, and the most engaging thrillers are those that are shot through with black humour, such as No Country For Old Men, this year's likely winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. The more carefully a film straddles this line, the more grown-up it feels.

In the case of television, tragicomedy has spawned a bastard son known as "dramedy". Nearly all the most critically acclaimed American series fall into this category, including Entourage and Ugly Betty, as does the best home-grown drama – Life on Mars and virtually every literary adaptation by Andrew Davies.

From a dramatist's point of view, tragicomedies are always appealing because they're not as hard to write as the layman might imagine. They involve combining two genres that appear to be poles apart, but, in fact, have a good deal in common. As Ray Cooney, the author of 17 West End comedies, puts it: "Most tragedies have as their basic theme the struggle of the individual against forces which are overwhelming, and the individual's efforts to combat these forces as the tide runs stronger against him. In addition, the individual is usually tortured because of his own character flaws and his inability to control these flaws under stress. Well, that seems to me to sum up most of my farces!"