In London, transforming Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” into a one-man show is an impressive feat, but it costs the play its pathos.
Most of us will live unfulfilled lives: This brutal and eternal truth has accounted for the enduring appeal of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” since it was first staged by Konstantin Stanislavski in Moscow in 1899. An ambitious new adaptation of this bleakly funny play looks to tease out its essence by stripping it down to its barest elements.
“Vanya,” adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Sam Yates, runs at the Duke of York’s Theater, in London, through Oct. 21, and features Andrew Scott — best known for playing the forbidden love interest in the hit TV series, “Fleabag” — in all eight roles. Scott gives an accomplished and engaging performance, but the one-man-show format throws up challenges, and ultimately doesn’t quite do justice to the play’s moral complexity and emotional resonance.
Small details have been changed here and there, but the contours of the story are familiar. Alexander, an aging and infirm filmmaker (a professor in the original play), returns to the country estate that has funded his cosmopolitan lifestyle, accompanied by his beautiful and much younger second wife, Helena. He hangs out with his middle-aged brother-in-law, Ivan (the titular Vanya), who has managed the estate for many years; his former mother-in-law, Elizabeth; his daughter, Sonia; and receives frequent visits from a doctor, Michael.
Regrets and frustrations abound. Alexander is acutely conscious that his powers are waning; Ivan feels he has wasted his potential by eking out an existence as a rural dogsbody, rather than chasing his dreams; Sonia has an intense crush on Michael, who only has eyes for Helena. In short, everyone is miserable. The only solace comes in the form of vodka.
Scott flits between the various parts by nimbly modulating his voice and bearing. If a certain amount of realism is sacrificed — to help orientate the audience, the characters’ names are mentioned more frequently than is natural, and the female characters occasionally come off a bit campy — it is nonetheless an impressive feat.
Sometimes, when switching from one character to the next, Scott will shoot the audience a knowing look as he skips to another point a few feet away, channeling the tongue-in-cheek demeanor of a clown or pantomime artist. The conceit is played for laughs at several points, such as when one relatively minor character pipes up for the first time about 15 minutes into the show, prompting another character to ask how long he’d been sitting there.
It’s a lot to take on, and, perhaps inevitably, Scott bumps up against some limitations. He does a fine line in affable awkwardness — the coy half-smirks, pregnant pauses and knowing glances that so endeared him to viewers of “Fleabag” — but he really needs a foil. Without one, we have the strange, and somewhat dissatisfying, spectacle of a man flirting with himself.
There is, moreover, an emotionally shallow quality to Scott’s onstage presence, a certain glassy inscrutability that suggests he’s a little too steeped in wry self-awareness to comfortably inhabit any other mode. He is great when rendering the human comedy of unrequited love, frustrated lust and drunken self-pity, but in the earnestly melancholic moments — this is Chekhov after all — the best he can serve up is an ironic facsimile of wistfulness.
The set, designed by Rosanna Vize, is carefully calibrated to evoke nothing in particular: A laminate desk; a fiberboard door frame; a generic, possibly midcentury, kitchenette. Scott’s attire is likewise neutral. Even the play’s title has been stripped down. Everything is geared toward an experience of pure, no-frills theater, enabling the audience to commune directly with the actor and text.
It’s a noble aim, but a question niggles away: What artistic benefit is derived from having a single actor play all the parts? I was reminded of the French avant-garde writers’ circle, Oulipo, whose members enjoyed subjecting themselves to technical constraints. One of them, Georges Perec, famously composed an entire novel without the letter “e”: an interesting thing to do, but what was the point?
The end product is what counts, and in this instance, the play is not well served; if anything, its pathos is diluted. Constraint for its own sake is self-indulgence, and there’s a fine line between a conceit and a mere gimmick.
Through Oct. 21 at the Duke of York’s Theater, London; dukeofyorks.com.
Source: Theater - nytimes.com