Not everyone will like Sam Yates’s Vanya. There are compromises required by a one-man play, and the unspoken word “gimmick” looms over such productions. This version of Chekhov’s drama is not set on a backwater estate in late 19th-century, Tsarist Russia, and no revolution is pending. But this Chekhov isn’t really about Chekhov. It’s about Andrew Scott.
We are experiencing a vogue for theatre as an endurance test: the multi-marathon-running Eddie Izzard taking on all 19 characters of Great Expectations; Ruth Wilson replaying the same scene over and over opposite different actors for 24 hours in The Second Woman. Scott faces less than both – just eight characters and 110 interval-less minutes – but still, his is a remarkable feat.
The playwright Simon Stephens’ adaptation translates Uncle Vanya to a modern setting (at one point a character places a vodka bottle in the bin with the green bag, not the white). We are presumably, owing to Scott’s accent and several references to potato farming, in Ireland. The set, by Rosanna Vize, has an unfinished, rehearsal-room feel; at the start, Scott playfully switches the theatre lights off and on. Character names have been updated – the doctor, Mikhail Astrov, is now Michael; the nurse, Marina, Maureen – and so even if you have good knowledge of the original, some mental translation is still required. Thank God Chekhov cut the character list of The Wood Demon in half when he reworked it into Uncle Vanya.
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Alexander, an ageing film-maker who hasn’t made anything of worth in years, is forced by financial hardship to move from the city to his country estate, along with his young, beautiful wife, Helena. The estate has long been managed by the resentful Ivan (Vanya), whose beloved deceased sister, Anna, was Alexander’s first wife; the land, her dowry. Sonia, Alexander and Anna’s kind but plain daughter, loves the enigmatic, alcoholic doctor, Michael, who in turn lusts after Helena. (We already know Scott to be a master of the sweet torture of impossible love from Fleabag, and it is as Michael and Sonia that he is at his best.) It is a play of both great humour and intoxicating tension, these characters, each with their inter-tangled desires and despairs pent up in a single house – in this case, within a single actor.
Scott consummately inhabits each character, and his transmutations between them are more easily followed than I feared, marked not by comically lurching from one part of the stage to another, but by slight changes in body language and small visual clues: Helena fidgets with her necklace; Sonia paws at a red tea towel. Scott is no great voice actor, but the physical theatre is utterly convincing, even superhuman. He is two people in one as he guides himself to bed, the caring Sonia taking the arm of her ailing father; or as he strokes his own hair, Helena comforting Alexander; or as he struggles against his own arm, Ivan barring the door to prevent Helena leaving. It only doesn’t work when Michael has sex with Helena. Scott has described the play as “sexy”, but there is nothing sexy about him copping off with himself – not even for Fleabag’s hot priest.
The plot makes less sense in a modern setting. The presence of servants feels anachronistic, though Stephens’ script knowingly addresses how little Chekhov gave his peripheral characters to do: “I completely forgot about you!” Ivan says to his mother, when she reappears after an hour of absence. Even Sonia’s beautiful, doleful concluding lines – that in the end they will look back and see meaning in the loss and painful ordinariness of their lives – feel less profound in our more secular world. Still, these are but minor distractions from the mercurial virtuoso, Andrew Scott.
“Vanya” is showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 21 October.
[See also: How Chekhov invented the modern short story]