A one-man version of ‘Uncle Vanya’ obviously sounds like an absolutely horrible idea, some real dark Simon Callow shit.
But ‘Vanya’ – a solo reworking of Chekhov’s play – is a truly remarkable performance from Andrew Scott: not a man hammily flexing between roles but something more profound and complicated, a headlong odyssey into the devastating emotions at the play’s heart.
It is still quite a funny idea, and it begins light-heartedly: ambling on in his partially unbuttoned shirt, a silent Scott pulls back a curtain at the back of Rosanna Vize’s set – cluttered with modern junk – to reveal a series of mirrors that reflect us, the audience, then starts flicking light switches to try and get the ambience in the auditorium right.
The play commences with a dialogue between hard-bitten doctor Michael and the title character’s gossipy mum Maureen (the names are anglicised in Simon Stephens’s new version). With her soft, bored, feminine voice and ever-present fag, Maureen is undeniably amusing - perhaps it’s a lazy reach when discussing an Irish actor, but there’s a touch of Mrs Doyle there, I think.
Certainly, though, the dialogue between Michael and Maureen doesn’t feel like Scott is showing off his range. There are no knowing looks at the audience or exaggerated segues between characters. Though there’s humour in Chekhov’s writing, the scene is not hammed up by the production: it simply feels like two people having an intimate conversation.
When Vanya himself enters the chat, Scott dons a comical pair of shades when assuming the role of the never-quite-grew-up title character, and pulls out a little red red plastic box that makes silly electronic noises. He’s not as wacky as all that sounds, though. He’s pitably amusing, but there’s the sense that he’s encased himself in the trappings of an amusing man to try and cover up the fact he is desperately sad.
Laughs continue to occur. But Sam Yates’s production intentionally never hits ‘uproarious’ mode. It’s very difficult to quantify what it and Scott are doing: though the actor brings distinct personalities, mannerisms and accents for the different characters, it doesn’t feel as simple as saying he’s simply doing the play normally, but on his own. The characters are not totally divisible. It inevitably loses some coherence and sense of narrative. But in doing so it becomes almost agonisingly intimate. As Vanya faces up to losing the estate he sacrificed everything for and Michael confronts the solemn Helena with his feelings for her, it feels much more intense than the average ‘Vanya’, like human emotion almost freed from narrative and shredded down to its purest, basest level. There’s just so much feeling there that it even transcends the nominal silliness of stuff like a scene in which two characters are kissing. It’s yearning and loneliness and regret distilled into a concentrate and injected, uncut, into our veins. It is a truly remarkable stage performance, that seems to go beyond acting and on to something like a shamanic act of empathy.
I obviously write this from the perspective of somebody who knows the plot to ‘Uncle Vanya’ - it’s difficult for me to say what somebody unfamiliar is going to make of all this. But I’m not sure to what extent crystal clarity is necessary: if you can understand the emotions, is anything else important?
It’s worth saying Scott isn’t exactly alone. He, Stephens, Yates and Vize are each credited as ‘co-creator’. Stephens’s adaptation is terse, tough and modern - none of that Anglo Chekovian kitsch of posh women called Masha fiddling with samovars. Indeed, as well as establishing a more general sense of contemporaneity, Vize’s set wittily includes a messy teapot and mugs - surely a sly send up of ‘samovar chic’. And it’s beautifully lit by James Farncombe: the switch-flipping start is good fun, but it’s the perfect evocation of the still of the night that really gives Scott the canvas to do his extraordinary thing.
It takes a village, and let’s not forget that it was already one of the greatest plays ever written. But still, it’s hard not to mostly come out without a sense of awe at Scott, another defining acting performance from a performer who doesn’t have any mode besides magical.