Vanya, Simon Stephens
Photo: Marc Brenner

Merged Destinies in Chekhov Adaptation ‘Vanya’

Andrew Scott’s stunning one-man performance in Vanya captures your qualms and hypotheticals and throws them back at you not as a bang but as a whisper.

Simon Stephens
Duke of York's Theatre
15 September - 21 October 2023

It is by now customary in the chats around London’s West End coteries to acknowledge Andrew Scott as the “greatest theater actor of his generation”, ready to inherit the coveted title from the incomparable Mark Rylance. The two-time Olivier Award winner has been such an impressionable presence onstage that his turn in Robert Icke’s 2017 adaptation of Hamlet drew even more praise than Benedict Cumberbatch’s iconic portrayal of the Danish prince from 2015. 

Scott’s rare, visceral ability to adapt and excel beyond the demarkations of comedy and drama – his two Oliviers came for polar opposite roles in 2004’s A Girl in a Car with a Man and 2019’s adaptation of Present Laughter – has certainly been a factor in the development of Vanya, playwright Simon Stephens’ modernization of Anton Chekhov’s legendary 1898 play. Stephens, who already collaborated with Scott on 2008’s Sea Wall (a role Scott wrote especially for him) and 2014’s Birdland, has publicly praised the actor’s mercurial playfulness and enormous capacity to embody different characters and human states. He initially considered the Irishman for the titular role, but one rehearsal reading after another, both claim it became clear that Scott should take on all the roles in Vanya

Staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre in a limited run from 15 September to 21 October and presented as a “co-creating” effort between Stephens, Scott, director Sam Yates, and stage designer Rosanna Vize, Vanya quickly emerged as an unlikely play of the year. What ought to have been “just” another cunning retelling of a classic (Stephens has already adapted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 2014 and Seagull in 2017) evolved into one of the most emotionally devastating deliveries in years, surprisingly adding new layers and context to a play we thought had given us all it could have.

Stephens’ text is modernized slightly, just enough to avoid parody and be relatable for contemporary audiences. The Russian estate has been transported to a potato farm in Ireland. Professor Alexander Serebryakov is now a fading filmmaker and his career choices seem to cause some very 20th-century stress. The names are also anglicized, but the rest is pleasantly familiar, as the core of Chekhov’s intense character study remains intact. 

While all co-creators are to be credited for Vanya’s potency, it is Scott who carries the depth of the author’s insights – and the audience’s heartache – on his face. Curiously, Vanya’s most astounding effects come from methods and setups counterintuitive to what one might expect from a solo show. Using Vize’s simple, 1970s-style kitchen with a door, table, and swing serving as liminal spaces, Yates has Scott (and his nine roles) moving around without abruptness and physicality one might presume would be necessary to distinguish between who’s speaking, but rather quietly, gently, as a specter.

Furthermore, despite Chekhov’s snappy humor and occasional flamboyance, Scott and the team opt for a slow-burning, affectively rich, meditative experience in which the spectator loses sight of all but the most raw and universal of human emotions. This gamble has proven to be an absolute triumph. 

In Vanya‘s very first moments, a languid Scott, seemingly not even in character, emerges on stage to – adjust the lights and mirrors, smirking at the audience. It’s a coy symbolic setup for what’s to come, as we will be looking inward throughout the 105-minute runtime, with no interval. He slides over to the stove and lights a cigarette; we’re watching mom Maureen casually gossip with Michael, the doctor. Slowly circling the table and the door, Scott moves between props and portraits: he fondles a towel when he takes over Sonya, fiddles a pendant around his neck when embodying Helena, and puts on sunglasses when channeling Vanya.

At times, these subtle methods are the only way to know which characters are speaking, as there are no brash transitions or sudden movements. There is also very little shouting, with the many ruminations and exchanges often reduced to a whisper. 

Certainly, Scott and the creative team know full well what they’re doing, the Irishman being in superhuman control of the stage and our emotions at all times. His intention is to blur the boundaries between physicalities and minds to the point of merging the many identities we encounter. The sad destinies of the eight idle, worried (middle-class) people fascinate all the more when they are interpreted as the many potential failures of a single human being. This is Scott’s astonishing quality – no matter who you are, he will capture your mind, your qualms and hypotheticals, and mercilessly throw them back at you not as a bang, but as a whimper. 

Midway through Vanya, one forgets there is just a single man onstage. Scott emerges victorious in his total command of attention and affect, laying out the numerous ways in which a person can screw themselves over and end up a withering nobody for whom the world has long since moved beyond. Not even scenes of kissing, sex (!), or singing seem out of place. Indeed, Scott performs a quiet, a capella rendition of “If You Go Away” while sitting on the floor, enhancing Chekhov’s timeless story with a layer of blasé delusion and dejectedness. 

There’s no doubt that the Russian giant’s text remains essential to the success of the contemporary Vanya, but Scott and Stephens pull off making Chekhov’s story even more overtly personal and aligned with the common neuroses of today. The curiously Franzenian part, where Michael rambles on about deforestation and impending environmental disaster, especially ties in with the longing in the singing and the many looks of despair perfectly. It demystifies the greatest (valid) obsession of today’s middle classes, along with our ludicrous impotence and inability to change anything, let alone escape our predicament. While not played for political kicks, this grotesque impotence of all concerned, regardless of their circumstance, blends into a pensive haze. 

By the end of Vanya, all of the individual elements that comprise the kinetics of a stage adaptation will be rendered null, including the infamous gun. All that will remain are the many faces of Scott staring sympathetically back at us, wondering about the many potential missed opportunities and why it is that we can’t seem to avoid falling prey to self-pity. Like Chekhov, Stephens and Scott do not offer answers, but instead double down on empathy and understanding, substituting a lump in the throat for catharsis. Theirs is a superbly intimate cautionary tale about the dangers of ennui.  

Scott is not the first actor to embody all characters in a play. Alan Cumming took on a solo Macbeth in 2013, and Robert Lepage changed the mechanics of stage direction with his late ’90s Elsinore. The exception also seems to be growing into a bit of a showcase trend, as Succession’s Sarah Snook is about to channel 26 faces from The Picture of Dorian Gray by herself at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in under three months’ time.

However, what Scott did in Vanya is so far removed from a simple display of range that one cannot imagine the illustrious drama presented by anyone else ever again. To be able to both honor and transform such a legendary work, right in the vain of what Mark Rylance has been doing for decades, is something only the greatest actor of his generation could do.