There is a vogue in Britain for actors to treat theatre as an endurance test. Recently, we have seen Eddie Izzard play 19 characters in Great Expectations and Ruth Wilson spend 24 hours on stage in The Second Woman on a seven-minute loop, each time in the presence of a different man. One of these men, Fleabag star Andrew Scott, has now undertaken his own gruelling theatre piece - an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in which he acts every part.
This could be seen as a riposte to the depressing trend for actors to play roles close to their own experience, or an unnecessary distillation of a great play where the brilliance lies in the interaction and crucially the lack of interaction between a group of characters heartbreakingly stranded in emotional and geographical stasis. But Scott is one of our greatest stage actors, and I am happy to say is on mesmerising form here, creating a whole emotional world for each role, and performances that are discrete enough to make you feel you are watching a quiet battle between the various wretched individuals wasting away on a country estate.
I should point out that this Vanya, a modern-day version by Simon Stephens (co-created by Scott and director Sam Yates), will not be for everyone. Those who have never seen the original may be baffled, and even if you have, I would advise that you reacquaint yourself beforehand. There are signs to help you work out who’s who. For example, Vanya (now Ivan) wears dark sunglasses to show his depressive tendencies, while Yelena (now Helena) indolently chews her necklace. But it takes time to acclimatise.
However, I felt my patience was rewarded, and that is no doubt down to Scott. He has an air of danger, and the mercurial thread running through his best performances is seen to great effect here. You witness Michael, formerly Astrov the lusted-after doctor, still an eco-bore and now a particularly bad drunk, transform into the watchful, meek Sonia, who then changes into one of the chirpy servants (whose slightly off-hand treatment in the original is confronted here).
Stephens has imbued this Vanya with as much light as shade, and a cheeky, modern sense of irony regarding some of the play’s absurdities (“You should stay with us,” Sonia tells Michael. “We have lunch at 11pm.”). But still, Chekhov’s most important points remain in tact, such as the strange power of Sonia’s passivity. “Uncertainty’s better. At least then there is hope.”
In truth, I didn’t feel Scott’s Ivan all lived up to previous performances - the rage and regret of Toby Jones’s Vanya in the West End in 2020 springs to mind. But Scott’s Sonia is a revelation, and in that famous final scene, when she offers hope to her desperate brother, the actor delivers both the essential strangeness and the essential ordinariness of human existence in one conclusive gut-punch.
Much I have seen on stage, post-Covid, has lacked daring, so this emotionally charged piece of event theatre feels like an eccentrically welcome arrival in the West End.
Until October 21. Tickets: vanyaonstage.com