Writer: Simon Stephens after Anton Chekhov
Director: Sam Yates
A one-man Uncle Vanya is unique in itself but perhaps more remarkable about this version of Chekhov’s classic is the terrible loneliness that runs through its 110 minutes. Nowadays directors wring out every last laugh from these Russian tragedies, particularly The Cherry Orchard but writer Simon Stephens and actor Andrew Scott find the haunting emptiness that anchors Chekhov’s late plays.
That’s not to say that this adaptation isn’t funny. Indeed, it begins with some self-referential comedy when Scott arrives awkwardly on stage when the house lights are still blazing. It is Scott who turns off the lights, eliciting laughter, and then again as he switches on the kettle. Immediately, we know that this Vanya has been updated to modern times, but not so modern that any character has a mobile phone and that the location is no longer Russia, but judging by the accents, rural Ireland. Some of the names of the characters have been revised too but still are familiar to anyone who knows the original. Vanya’s mother is now dead but is still present when the piano plays by itself.
Surprisingly and thankfully, this is not a one-man play where the actor has to fully inhabit every role. Instead, Scott’s characterisation is small and subtle. We know Maureen (Marina) by the cigarette she smokes and we know Sonia (Sonya) by the red tea towel she clutches. Helena (Yelena) crosses one arm over her body and plays with the chain around her neck and Michael (Mikhail Astrov) bounces a tennis ball. Slight variations in accents also help the audience identify which person Scott is playing. Film director Alexander has a haughty brogue while his wife speaks quietly in an English accent. Even when there are numerous characters in the room, Scott’s nuanced differences ensure that the narrative is easy to follow.
Despite the update and the use of a single actor, Stephens’ story remains faithful to the original. Of course, this is not the first time that he has adapted Chekhov, but his Cherry Orchard was a little dull while his Seagull, with Lesley Sharp, was too stylised and heightened and the sex scenes seemed gratuitous. The sex scenes in Stephens’ Vanya, however, are proportionate and sensible.
The fact that Scott has come to play all the roles is a happy accident that occurred when Stephens and director Sam Yates asked Scott to come into the rehearsal room to workshop the new script. The three men were struck by how similar the characters are. And it’s true. With Scott playing all the roles, with only minimal differences between them, the pain that they all carry is clear to see. Alexander fears old age while restless Helena worries that she has become boring. Even minor characters such as Waffles, here reimagined as Crater, has been broken by the childhood bullies who made fun of his acne scars.
But it is Sonia who figures most, especially on a second viewing when the novelty of a lone actor has faded. Her unrequited love for the doctor is heartbreaking and yet the play remains resolutely unsentimental. Sonia’s sadness doesn’t provoke tears; instead, it drills into your soul very much like Stephens’ earlier one-man play, A Song from Far Away, recently revived starring Will Young. Both plays force us to face our own mortality and the quiet scene between Sonia and Ivan (Uncle Vanya) at the end of the play is as bleak an ending as Firs being forgotten at the end of The Cherry Orchard. That closing scene with Firs trapped in a locked house is often staged as comedy when really it should horrify, but the end here in Vanya is played seriously and desolately.
This one-man show could so easily have been a gimmick – a way to see the sexy vicar from Fleabag in the West End – but Scott, Stephens and Yates have got to the heart of Chekhov. Powerful and brave, Vanya is a meditation on existence itself.
Runs until 21 October 2023