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By Daniel Lammin
26th February 2024

This may seem a very bold claim, but after William Shakespeare, I would consider Russian playwright Anton Chekov the finest writer for the stage we have ever seen. Writing at the end of the 19th century and at the very cusp of the 20th century, his work feels like a fulcrum point where so many ideas, movements and concerns meet - the push for realism pioneered by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen in Norway, the idiosyncratic spark and wit of the Russian literary voice perfected by Leo Tolstoy, the lush romanticism and connection to indigenous Russian culture woven into the music of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and, perhaps most powerfully of all, the sense that the world was on the brink of transition. The characters in Chekhov's plays are hopeless in so many senses of the word - hopelessly romantic, hopelessly naïve, hopelessly idealistic and hopelessly caught in the riptide of a changing social, political and economic world. And he expressed this, not through the monolithic tragedy of Ibsen, but through gentle, sparkling, incandescent comedy, a gentleness and humanity that has, quite frankly, never been matched. He captured, as scholar Sharon Marie Cornice put it, "the music of everyday life". What is all the more remarkable is that, unlike Shakespeare, Chekhov only wrote five full-length plays, four of which now considered amongst the finest ever written. He died on the 15th of July 1904 at the age of 44, achieving so much with so little time.

I give all this context to frame both the ambition and brilliance of 'Vanya', a radical adaptation of Chekhov's masterpiece 'Uncle Vanya' by playwright Simon Stephens for the National Theatre, screening soon as part of NT Live. Those who saw Ryusuke Hamaguchi's transcendent 'Drive My Car' may recognise it as the play the company is rehearsing throughout the course of that film. It's the story of a family caught in a transition point, where their country estate where they have lived all their lives now belongs to the widowed husband of the daughter of the family. The action pivots around her brother Ivan, nicknamed Vanya, who is the only family member with the gumption to speak the truth, even if it will come at a cost he can't accept. It's as if Vanya is holding back the tides on his own, without understanding whether the rest of his family wants him to keep pushing or let the deluge wash it all away.

What is so startling about Stephens' adaptation is that it reshapes Chekhov's remarkable cast of characters into a monologue for a single actor. This isn't a new idea, the recent stage adaptation of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' at the Sydney Theatre Company a prime example. The striking conceit of 'Vanya' though, as realised by director Sam Yates, is that no technical tricks are employed to assist the actor in transitioning between characters. There's no pre-record, no voices off-stage, no AV. It's just an actor on stage, alone, surrounded by only the most necessary objects to tell the story. Stephens' text has no narration, no set-up. It simply dives straight into Chekhov's dramatic action. The magic trick is what the actor can do, that's all. And the ultimate magic trick that 'Vanya' employs is the casting of Andrew Scott ('All of Us Strangers').


As he walks out onto the stage, designed by Rosanna Vize to resemble a rehearsal room, he does so as himself, dressed in the kind of simple yet fashionable clothes we're used to seeing Scott himself wear. He takes a drink of water, a private moment, then turns to us. He goes to a light switch, flicks off the house lights, flicks them on again. It's a simple yet gorgeous moment, a nod to the audience that he's aware they are here and that their presence is welcome. He turns to a small kitchenette, begins to make a pot of tea. And then, with startling simplicity, he begins to move from character to character, with an ease that almost instantly makes you gasp.

It's small actions, so small and obvious as to be genius - the use of a single prop and gesture to signify who is talking, a small move of the head to suggest not only who is speaking but where in the room they are. Just as Chekhov does, he and Stephen and Yates draw us in with gentle, good-natured comedy, but there's also an education happening here. Scott is taking his time, giving us a moment to understand the logic of this conceit and to follow how these transitions will work. Some are so subtle that you barely notice them, but you always know who is speaking. It truly is like watching a magic trick, your eyes dazzled, your voice whispering, "How did he do that?' It would be enough, as with the STC 'Dorian Gray', just to watch 'Vanya' to see the skill of how Scott navigates it. He makes it look so effortless, so easy.

Most remarkable of all though - and integral to the conceit of 'Vanya' working as well as it does - is that he makes it feel like there is simply no other way this could be done. Even if you've seen 'Uncle Vanya' on stage in its original form, Scott makes it seem not only that this was always hidden in the text but to make you wonder why no one had tried this in the first place (the answer being that only Scott could probably have pulled it off). This is important because it justifies the decision to adapt the play into this form. These kinds of one-person productions of classic plays can sometimes feel like a vanity project, a flexing of one's acting muscles. You go to watch the spectacle. This isn't the case with 'Vanya', even though it is truly spectacular. What we are watching is both a full cast of characters, each distinct and rounded, full of life and brimming with history, and at the same time, a single person, where each character is a reflection of themselves. It's Scott as Chekhov's characters and Scott as himself, where every word every character says is coming from something inside him. There is the sense, when you watch or read Chekhov, that you are seeing a microcosm of the full sweep of human experience. By having Scott embody all these characters in one flowing, seamless dance, you can fully appreciate this fact. That full sweep is within him, and thus, within us. We see him navigate love, jealousy, embarrassment, heartbreak, fury, frustration, arrogance, cruelty and tenderness, sometimes within seconds of each other, sometimes all at once. And all this with every character being distinct and every story beat clear. The fact that Scott is skilled enough to pull this off is not a surprise; he's long been quietly one of the finest actors we have. Only Scott though could make it feel so honest, so immediate, so vital, so personal. You can feel every word beating with his heart, and you simply can't take your eyes off him.

Andrew Scott turns to a small kitchenette, begins to make a pot of tea. And then, with startling simplicity, he begins to move from character to character, with an ease that almost instantly makes you gasp.

The brilliance of Scott's performance is also a credit to the power of Yates' direction. The conceit of 'Vanya' also needs specificity, and as great as Scott is, he still needs a strong directorial hand to let him know when to push, when to pull, when to sit, when to fall. There isn't a gesture in 'Vanya', grand or granular, that hasn't been wholly considered, and much as with Vicky Jones' direction in the stage production of 'Fleabag', this great actor benefits from the insistence of a great director that every moment matters. Scott doesn't have anyone or anything on stage to catch him if he falls, and Yates ensures that Scott has all the tools to not only catch himself if he does, but to ensure his foundation is so sturdy that falling never feels possible. They both also build from the foundation of Stephens' text, eruditely preserving the spark and musicality of Chekhov's original play but with a contemporary flavour to it. There are moments where the script gets a bit wooly, mostly when it has to make allowances for the fact a single actor is embodying all these characters, but Scott expertly navigates through these moments.

As with all the NT Live screenings, it's worth commenting on the quality of the film itself. Often with larger productions, such as 'Follies' or 'All About Eve', the camera isn't able to fully capture the scale of what is happening on stage. In cases such as 'Vanya' however, the single performer works much better, the camera able to replicate the theatre audience's singular point of focus. The filming and editing of 'Vanya' is particularly strong, with some powerful creative choices. There are often shots where Scott is positioned to the side of the frame, making you aware of the negative space beside him where another character might be. This ensures that the energy and liveness Scott is imbuing the space is captured for the cinema audience. Its finest moments though come from the close-ups, unbroken shots where we can see the minutiae of Scott's transformations. It's clear that a lot of thought has been put into this recording, as befitting a production as special as this. Unfortunately I wasn't able to track down the details of the team responsible for this NT Live presentation, but they should be commended for such tremendous work.

The downside of seeing something as extraordinary as 'Vanya' as part of NT Live is how much I wish I could have been in the theatre with that audience, to feel the electricity that comes with watching a living, breathing, live performance right in front of you. It would have been overwhelming. In this form though, we come about as close as its possible to be without actually being there. This presentation of 'Vanya' is as careful and considered as the production itself, allowing audiences all over the world to experience, not just the jaw-dropping skill of Andrew Scott's performance, but his tender and generous evocation of one of the finest writers of the stage. 'Vanya' is the magic of Anton Chekhov distilled down to it purest form - the longing for human connection, the terror of being forgotten, the beauty in the smallest of gestures, the mourning of what was and the dawning of what is to come. In the sparseness of Sam Yates' production, that magic can breathe without distraction, and in the hands of Andrew Scott, it can dazzle as brightly as it ever has.

RELEASE DATE: 22/02/2024
RUN TIME: 01h 40m
CAST: Andrew Scott
WRITERS: Anton Chekhov
Simon Stephens
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