Jane Edwardes in the West End
1 October 2023
When Peter Hall was artistic director of the National Theatre, he used to say that if he was to give directors a free hand, Chekhov would be playing continuously in all three theatres. In those days, productions were largely traditional, although there had been a shift to speeding up the pace and emphasizing the comedy. More recently, the plays have been radically re-written, re-located, and updated. In Jamie Lloyd’s not entirely successful version of The Seagull, the company sat on chairs throughout.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Now, a team of four, including playwright Simon Stephens, actor Andrew Scott, director Sam Yates, and designer Rosanna Vize, have collaborated on a one-man version of Uncle Vanya, adapted and considerably shortened by Stephens. He and Scott are old buddies and have worked together previously, mostly notably on Sea Wall at the Royal Court. Scott is famous for playing Moriarty in Sherlock and the “hot” priest in Fleabag on TV.
There’s no doubt that actors enjoy leaping from one character to the next, showing off their range and technical skills. At the Duke of York’s, where Vanya is currently playing, Stones in his Pockets ran for three years, in which two actors played a whole range of characters from Irish extras to an American film director and his glamorous star. The Lehman Trilogy was a dazzling example of three actors portraying the history of an entire family over 100 years.
But in neither of those plays were the characters portrayed in any great depth, whereas Chekhov is famous for his subtext and depth of feeling for the people he puts on stage. Also, he worked, admittedly not always happily, with director Stanislavski, whose acting methods are still a powerful force in the theatre today, in which each actor has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the character that they are playing and an ability to show what their intention is in each individual scene. How is it possible for one actor to achieve that? And, more to the point, why would one want to? Scott’s extraordinary achievement is that to a large extent he succeeds in what becomes a heartfelt, but also humorous performance of the play.
The play is shifted from late-19th-century Russia to an Irish potato farm, perhaps sometime in the 1980s, given the cassette player and carousel on which Michael shows the indifferent Helena slides of his forest. Stephens uses modern vernacular language. And names have been changed. Vanya becomes Ivan. Serebryakov is now Alexander, and not a professor, but an ageing filmmaker, who last made a film 17 years ago. The doctor, Astrov, is Michael, and Yelena now Helena.
The setting feels more like a rehearsal room than a finished design. Plywood is used for a crucial doorway, a kitchenette, and a set of steps going nowhere. In the back corner, a giant white ball sits next to a small model of a fir tree. An ugly, grey curtain covers the back of the stage. The only object that might be seen as traditionally Chekhovian is a swing that is largely used by the languorous Helena.
At the beginning, while the auditorium lights are still on, Scott strolls on, clutching a water bottle, again suggestive of a rehearsal. He flicks a switch, plunging us in darkness. Then turns it on and off several times with a sly smile on his face. He draws back the curtain to reveal a mirror in which the audience is reflected. Then, having established this playful atmosphere, he leans against the kitchenette, and adopts the posture of housekeeper Maureen offering Michael a cup of tea. She is smoking, and Michael bounces a tennis ball to help establish the two different people.
Props are used in a similar fashion throughout. Sonia plays with a red tea towel. Helena nervously fingers a necklace, and Vanya likes to sport a pair of sunglasses. What immediately becomes clear is that the production is not going to be about the speed with which Scott can rapidly change his bearing and voice to become another person. Instead, the change can be quite leisurely, and yet, with great delicacy, he appears able to inhabit the essence of each of the many characters from the rage of Vanya to the stoicism of Sonya.
The team succeeds in their stated aim of showing the common humanity that lies beneath all the characters. They share the same needs. Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the entire evening happens when Ivan, deeply upset by seeing Michael and Helena together, and by hearing of Alexander’s plan to sell the estate, comes on with a rifle intending to kill Alexander. Scott stands onstage holding the rifle, and at the same time utters Helena’s pleas for him to stop. He is, in effect, playing two people at once.
At times, it plays tricks on one’s mind. Here, Michael, offering in the most suggestive way to show Helena his maps, becomes far more intimate with her than is usually the case – not, I think, consistent with Helena’s sense of propriety – and, as Scott embraces himself, you wait for Ivan to burst into the room to discover them, before remembering that Scott will first have to disentangle himself.
That’s if one knows the play, but of course not everyone in the audience will be familiar with it, and it’s difficult to know how easy it is to follow if you don’t. Stephens’s often sardonic, shortened version races through events, highlighting the way in which Alexander and Helena’s disastrous visit throws all their lives into turmoil. It also means that some events are skimmed over, particularly the reconciliation between Sonia and Helena. And yet he gives full weight to the heartbreaking ending in which Sonia looks forward to the days of hard work ahead of her and Ivan, in the belief that eventually their sorrows will pass.
If it wasn’t for Scott’s TV fame, the production would surely be staged at the Almeida or the Dorfman. But here in the West End, the run is almost sold out. It’s not just that Scott is a crowd puller, he is also one of the very few actors who could carry it off. It’s a remarkable event that forces one to think about the nature of acting. But I rather hope it doesn’t become a trend in theatre’s straitened times.