Dear Uncle: From Russia To Scarborough (2011)This article was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre for the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Dear Uncle - an adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya - in 2011.
Alan Ayckbourn freely admits he is not one of life’s natural adaptors. In more than 50 years of writing, he has only chosen to write five adaptations.
Which naturally begs the question, why of all plays has Alan chosen to adapt Anton Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya?
The short answer. Because someone asked him….
In 2008, Kevin Spacey, Artistic Director of the Old Vic in London, unveiled a much heralded and long anticipated revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests. Directed by Matthew Warchus, Spacey regarded it as a classic ripe for revival but nothing less than a huge risk; as the director of the original London production Eric Thompson had noted in 1973: “Do you realise we could be the first people in history with three flops in a row, because if they don't like one, they sure as hell aren't going to like the others!” Despite this, Spacey's risk paid off admirably with a critical and commercial hit which transferred to Broadway becoming the first Ayckbourn production to win a Tony Award.
Much of the success of the production was attributed to the seriousness with which Matthew Warchus approached the material, which laid the unlikely foundations for Dear Uncle.
“Matthew Warchus said to the cast when he started rehearsing The Normans Conquests: I would like you to look at this play as if it were Chekhov and we will treat it with the same seriousness as a Chekhov play, which paid off. As a result, it was enormously funny, very successful and one of the best productions I’ve seen of the trilogy.”
Amidst all the celebrations following its successful launch, Matthew Warchus mentioned his Chekhovian approach to the plays to the producers David Pugh and Daydd Rogers and suggested it might be a good idea to direct a Chekhov as if it were by Alan Ayckbourn. The producers enthusiastically agreed which led to a phone call to Alan and an inevitable question….
“They asked me to do a version of Uncle Vanya and it was a play I’d directed before and liked very much from one of my great all-time heroes. I said, ‘wait a minute there’s some very, very good versions of Uncle Vanya, what do you want mine to be?’ David said, ‘I’d like it to be you’ and then Matthew chimed in, ‘Don’t make it too Russian!’ I said ‘OK, I’ll do that.’"
Having agreed to write the play, the news soon leaked out and as readesr of the red top theatre gossip columns might remember, Uncle Vanya was set to star Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott with possibly Kristin Scott Thomas or Carey Mulligan or Maggie Gyllenhall opening in the West End in 2009 or 2010 or 2011 - depending on who you read and who you believe. The moral of this being don’t believe everything you read, particularly if a website announces Ralph Fiennes is in negotiations to appear in Scarborough….
Amidst all the rumours, there was one fact. Sitting in a drawer since early 2009 lay Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya gathering dust. Apparently much to the embarrassment of the people who had commissioned it.
“Matthew Warchus got more and more commitments - and is an impossibly busy young man - and we were just waiting. David Pugh kept ringing, terribly embarrassed and saying: ‘Could we extend the contract for the rights for another six months.’ Matthew eventually said to David, ‘I feel terrible about this as we got the ball rolling, why don’t you ask Alan if he’d like to do it in Scarborough.’”
Alan agreed he would quite like to do it in Scarborough - which also led to the commissioning of a new play sharing the same company, Neighbourhood Watch. So Alan retrieved the manuscript and in 2011 returned to something he hadn’t touched since 2009 and which, from his point of view, was slightly historic given he’d written another three full length plays since writing Dear Uncle.
This wasn’t the first time Alan had directed Uncle Vanya as back in 1972 at the Library Theatre, he’d tackled the play with a production featuring among others Christopher Godwin, Heather Stoney and Stanley Page; all of whom, he later noted, being “far too young for it!” The play was met with a mixed reception although, intriguingly ,The Stage reported the original intent was to produce ‘a modern version of Uncle Vanya’ rather than the more traditional period path actually produced.
With almost 40 years more directing experience behind since then, Alan has approached the play probably not too dissimilarly to how Matthew Warchus originally intended to direct it. For unsurprisingly, Alan is directing it like one of his own plays or rather as himself.
“I think Matthew’s intention was to mirror what he did with The Norman Conquests and on the first day of rehearsal say, I hope, “we’re going to direct this like it’s Alan Ayckbourn.” I’ve just directed it as I would any of my plays. I looked for the same seriousness and the same fun. There’s a clue to how to approach Uncle Vanya in the actual play though; if a play at the third act curtain has a man running in being pursued by another man with a loaded revolver having just fired saying: “Missed. Again!” You know this is a comedy!”
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.