Vanya: the one-man Chekov

‘Uncle Vanya’ is a play very dear to my heart. Many decades ago I played Sonya in rep at Harrogate Playhouse. I had only just started out as a professional actress, with no training other than getting out there and doing it, and while I have no idea if I was any good or not I identified with Sonya totally and utterly: the plain, naive girl who falls in unrequited love with a man who looks on her as no more than a friend, and a child to boot.

More recently I booked to see the play in the West End but was thwarted when Covid shut down the theatres the day before I was due to see it in March 2020. Fortunately that production, with Toby Jones as Uncle Vanya, was subsequently filmed, so I was able to watch it over and over until I knew every word, every movement by heart. It was a wonderful production and featured Aimee Lou Wood as a heartbreaking Sonya.

The play also features very strongly in my current novel-in-progress. My central character is an actress who thinks she is the bees’ knees until she is put very firmly in her place by a Russian disciple of the great Stanislavsky. When asked to act the part of Sonya in a demonstration of the famous System she is bullied into a realisation that acting is more than just walking onto a stage and projecting your lines to the furthest row of the gallery. Through the medium of honest, homespun Sonya the sophisticated, haughty Meredith learns something not just about herself but about the whole business of acting itself.

So when I heard that Andrew Scott was to play every part in a one-man production of the play my first thought was, Why?

Duke of Yorks theatre poster

The answer is partly because Andrew Scott, in an albeit restricted run, is able to sell out a West End theatre where the cheapest available ticket is £120.

One hundred and twenty pounds.

But then I read the reviews, first in What’s On Stage and elsewhere, in which the reviewers dispelled all my doubts. I knew I had to see the thing. But at £120??

Fortuitously this production is mounted by the same company, ATG, as my missed Uncle Vanya, for which I dimly remembered I was in receipt of a voucher. That reduced the cost of the ticket by around a third, which mean my seat in row K of the stalls only cost me around £80.

So what of the production?

I have loved and not loved Andrew Scott in the past. I did not love his Gary Essendine in Present Laughter at the Old Vic, but I did love his lockdown performance in Three Kings at the same theatre, filmed and transmitted live. There’s no doubting his extraordinary talent.

First of all, you really need to know the play before you see this version. Set in the present in Ireland, it is confusing, at least to begin with. Who is Michael? (Astrov) And who is Ivan? (Vanya, of course) Scott signals his switch of roles partly by use of props – he fingers his necklace as Helena and wipes his hands on a cloth as Sonya; Vanya toys with sunglasses and Vanya’s mother Maureen smokes cigarettes. Helena speaks RP and her husband Alexander has what sounds like a pompous Ulster twang. It is very subtle – so subtle in parts that it was difficult to hear the dialogue, though Scott does have the ability to whisper on stage and be audible – and at times very funny. The adaptation by the supremely talented Simon (Curious Incident, to name one) Stephens is deft and fluent and artfully edited down to just under two hours without a break.

Uncle Vanya, 2020 production (Official London Theatre)

In the end though, does it offer up anything new about the play? You have to admire the performance, that goes without saying. However it’s my view that Andrew Scott is always even at his best just a little mannered, and some of his mannerisms – hands over the face, wiping the eyes wearily – do not seem to be fixed to one particular character. Yes, it is extremely moving at times, but ultimately it struck me as above all a masterclass by an actor at the top of his game. For a definitive version of a great play, give me Toby Jones and his fellow actors any day.