Preview: ‘Uncle Vanya’


On the 17th and 18th November, Durham University’s Classical Theatre Society (DUCT) will be taking their production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to Durham’s Masonic Hall. I spoke to the cast and crew of the production to gain an insight into the process behind translating the play from script to stage.

First published in 1898, Uncle Vanya tells the story of an aged professor reflecting on his wasted life. A play that is gripped by themes of love and passion, regret and sorrow, I asked the Director, Harry Scholes, what compelled him to choose this play.

Uncle Vanya tells the story of an aged professor reflecting on his wasted life.

“It was primarily the realism of the characters- even though it’s set in the 19th century, they are instantly relatable and recognisable. People often consider Chekhov second only to Shakespeare; both can be, and have been, reinterpreted time and time again. But where Shakespeare is the master of the spoken word, Chekhov is king of the unsaid; his characters are defined as much by what they don’t say as what they do. Even when the conversation is mundane- something all too common in the 19th century- you can see the cogs turning, the pointed motivations behind every character’s speech or action. When you know the characters so well, it becomes a much more intimate and moving play.”

But where Shakespeare is the master of the spoken word, Chekhov is king of the unsaid

It is evident to me when talking to Scholes that he has a clear vision for the play. He tells me of the way he wants his production to be “back to basics Chekhov” with “an intense feeling of claustrophobia” and a “heavy, unnerving atmosphere”. Set in the grand Masonic Hall, this should certainly aid his vision for the play. Scholes says that “the audience will be so close to the actors that it should feel extremely personal and moving. No two audience members should have the same experience. I wanted to create a sense of ambiguity – the scope for re-interpretation of Chekhov’s writing is so great that sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly what a character is thinking which makes it all the more compelling.”#

“wanted to create a sense of ambiguity”

Of course, staging a play that revolves around ageing characters and themes of wasted life and regret, it is hard to see how the actors can relate to the experiences within the play. I asked actor, Tom Murray, what challenges this brought him and how he tried to bring his own truth to the character of Uncle Vanya.

“I like to think my life hasn’t, or indeed isn’t going to be, quite as squandered as Uncle Vanya thinks his has been. Obviously, I don’t know what it is like to feel the depth of despair Vanya feels or even what it’s like to be fourty-seven, but I suppose all acting is a form of estimation. For example, I have at some point in my life felt bitterness or dejection or futility, though not as intensely as Vanya, and obviously I have seen how older men behave. I presumably draw upon and intensify these experiences when assuming the character. I hope there’s some kind of truth there.”

DUCT presents Uncle Vanya on the 17th and 18th November with three performances. Tickets can be booked on the DST website or bought on the door. It looks set to be a compelling watch!

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