Dear Uncle: Adapting A Classic (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.

When in 2008 Alan was commissioned to adapt
Uncle Vanya for the West End, he was given just two conditions:
Make it Ayckbourn and don’t make it too Russian!
With those words in mind, Alan began the process of adapting one of Chekhov’s most famous plays. But where do you begin with an adaptation?

“I’m provided with a literal translation by a lady called Vera Liber, which is really written as faithfully to the original as possible. She writes nice and simply and without any judgement as far as I can see; she’s also quite passionate about the precise meanings of words.”

Alan has previously worked with Vera Liber’s translations for his adaptation of The Forest by Ostrovsky (1999) and had learnt much from the experience, although on both occasions he followed the same basic course.

“For adapting, you begin by staying very close to the character and try to echo their intentions. Then as you springboard off them, you begin to enjoy them and they become part of you. It’s a very strange process because you feel like a cuckoo in someone else’ nest, re-hatching their eggs. I began to hear the voices of the characters as I would in one of my own plays and they became very distinctive.”

One of the biggest challenges facing anyone adapting a play - particularly one so well known as Uncle Vanya - is how closely to stick to the original material or how far to stray? Alan’s most famous adaptation A Trip To Scarborough is arguably as much his creation as R B Sheridan’s given two thirds of the play is original and new material thematically linked to the original. With Uncle Vanya, Alan was tackle the play’s plot from a place of familiarity.

“The closer you get to the original writer the more nervous you become, because you feel you may just be treading on his heels. So my first instinct was to move as far geographically away from Russia as possible; staying within my own field of knowledge. I’m always a tremendous believer in never writing something which you know nothing about. So I started it and I just pulled a little bit of string and unravelled one of the names. A bit like a sweater, you unpick it and you end up with a ball of wool and you have to knit a new sweater. Same ingredients and essentially the same characters, which I just moved away from Russia to England and eventually I finished in 1935 in the Lake District, which is as near to Russia as I’ve ever been!”

The choice of Alan’s final destination is something he regards as rather arbitrary, but as he began to research the period, he realised that whether by luck or divine inspiration, he had chosen a period which had distinct similarities to the original play.

“In the original play, there was this slightly quirky man who had a passion for forests and didn’t want to see them destroyed. In those days he was regarded as a bit of a crank- although we see productions now and think, what an incredibly perspicacious doctor. The first thing I discovered when researching the Lake District was that by the time you get to 1935, you have these foolish policies of the newly established Forestry Commission which hacked down the native English trees, planting conifers instead; deforestation and forestation were going at an incredible rate and a lot of people were getting quite agitated at that time. I thought that’s quite interesting; I was not guided here by madness, somebody guided my hand!”

As for the rest of the play, Alan was very conscious of staying true to the spirit of the play and Chekhov’s intentions.

“I still feel it’s very much Chekhov because nothing is ever forced out of its natural role. Even the speech patterns are the same. The one deviation I was very conscious of making was the character of Sonya ,who I made younger than normal. In the original she was nearing what would be described as spinsterhood and in love with a man who was older than her and never really noticed her; rather cruelly I think. I made her much younger, a 16 year old schoolgirl who has everything to live for. She develops the same sort of passion for Doctor Ash as Sonya did for Astrov in the original, except in this case it’s got that comic twist that Ash never really considers Sonya, as being a natural sort of bloke he’s interested in slightly more mature women!”

Alan has frequently stated his admiration of Chekhov and his plays and he hopes that audiences enjoy watching the play as much as he’s enjoyed adapting it.

“It was fun writing it. There’s plenty of versions of Uncle Vanya you can see and if you want to see one that’s more accurate, then there are those. But this is my take on the play.”

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.