29 August 2023
VANYA (Richmond Theatre) Review

I didn’t do a good job of reading up on Simon Stephens’ new play prior to seeing it.  Between the title and the cast of one, I fully expected the play to be Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” retold from Vanya’s perspective; a bit of an internal monologue, as it were.  This caused a bit of a disconnect when Andrew Scott walked onto the stage, spoke a few lines, and then said “You were handsome and young then” in a high-pitched voice, which is the line said by the nurse to Astrov in the classic version.

It took me a few minutes to get my bearings:  Stephens’ play is concise and modernised adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” proper, but with Andrew Scott playing all 8 characters.  To Scott’s credit, he does keep them all separate in tone and pitch, so it’s pretty easy to follow who’s who and what’s what once you twig the setup.  Scott is a fantastic actor, so he largely carries the play.  The enjoyment factor is down to how he changes between characters rather than the script itself.

Sam Yates’ direction felt original in some places, but also a bit much in others.  The loudly vocalised sex scene most certainly felt out of place

I know Chekhov’s play reasonably well, but not by heart of course.  I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but the almost every line that got a rise (especially laughter) from the audience, was recognisable and familiar, meaning it came from Chekhov, not Stephens.  Yet the show was billed as “after Anton Chekhov”, so it felt to me that Stephen was getting credit where none was due.  My companion wasn’t as bothered by this as I was, but it certainly rubbed me the wrong way.  I was also put out by the seemingly unnecessary changes to the language:  Telegin’s nickname has always been translated as “Waffles” on account of the original language, but Stephens opted to make it “Crater”, having the character explain that his face looks like the surface of the moon.  I don’t see how this improves anything, but, perhaps, that’s just me.

This is the second solo performance of Scott’s that I’ve seen (the 2018 staging of Stephens’ “The Sea Wall” was the first one).  It’s clear that Stephens and Scott like working together.  But all through the play I couldn’t help thinking why and and whether this adaptation was necessary.  There are excellent translations out there.  If Scott wanted to take on the task of playing 8 characters at once, that could’ve been easily done against the original script.  I don’t know how this production came about, but it does have a feel of a vanity project, I’m sorry to say.

The critics will undoubtedly love it, but, I reckon, that’ll be Scott’s doing.  Going over the play in my mind, I just don’t see what new or interesting perspective it brings to the original text (other than anglicised names, which my ears didn’t appreciate).  Interestingly enough, I found out 4 days after the show that Sam Holcroft also wrote an adaptation of “Uncle Vanya”.  Her 2009 play only had the 4 main characters (Vanya, Astrov, Sonya, and Yelena), and its intent was to boil the play down to just two central “competitions” for the object of one’s affections.  I didn’t see this production, but at least it seems like it would’ve been something different.

This was a delightful evening at the theatre watching a play that didn’t need to be written.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5.

Bonus:  As I was watching the play, I kept hoping and searching for new angles. Eventually I started to wonder if, perhaps, Vanya has dissociative identity disorder, and all the characters are just voices in his head whilst he is cooling his heels in a mental institution.  That would’ve been an interesting angle to be sure…  After the show I randomly happened to run into Simon Stephens outside the theatre, so I asked him if this was the case of multiple personalities or just a regular play performed by one actor as a different delivery system.  Stephens said, “it’s a little bit of everything”.  He was just lovely during our brief chat, but this feels like a cop-out to me.  Getting a doctor (not Astrov, obviously; or, actually, why not Astrov, who could’ve been running the institution and thus worked himself into being a voice in Vanya’s head) to come onto the stage at the end to give Vanya his medication would’ve been decidedly something different.  Otherwise, as I’ve been saying, what’s the point of this adaptation?

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