After successfully bringing Three Sisters and The Seagull into the modern day, Russell Bolam, along with collaborator, playwright Anya Reiss, is back with a third Chekhov instalment, this time taking Uncle Vanya to the St James Theatre. Having begun its run just two days earlier, I talk to Bolam about working with Reiss, their process, directing and adapting Chekhov.
“A lot has been said in regards to it being modern but I think we’re ultimately just trying to make Chekhov accessible to an modern audience,” he begins. The goal Bolam and Reiss have set for themselves is undoubtably ambitious – these are plays that are frequently performed and are acclaimed for their text, but in rewriting they are attempting to reach a new generation of theatregoers. “It started at Southwark Playhouse, with a desire to bring Chekhov to a much younger audience. The idea really excited me – that a younger audience could embrace and find Chekhov as hilarious and heartbreaking as the older theatregoing crowd, and that’s where we started. That’s what we’re trying to do, make Chekhov more modern, more accessible and a play for today.’
Bolam and Reiss are made for this task – both young, established and eager to do Chekhov a service. It is this combination that allows them to tap into their desired market. “Anya’s a 22-year-old playwright, and I’m a 33-year-old director. The nature of that collaboration will make it appeal to younger crowds. But there are people from a range of ages who enjoy what we do.” They recognise the hazard of an adaption that is too set on being geared for younger audiences, and instead prioritise what is best for the play. “If we consciously try and make it cool and hip, and in keeping with the fashionable elements or British theatre, we’ll end up with the wrong lens and filter for the play’s needs. We just focus on the play and creating the world for the play.”
This vein of thinking is present from conception as they set about selecting the best fitting environment to bring the text into a modern setting. “We tend to knock heads and talk in terms of context. What if Vanya happened today? What elements of the play suit that? It’s a rural play so you’ve got to think, where’s this community now? We do a lot of this conceptual work before rehearsal.
Once this is decided Reiss goes about writing a version for that choice – Bolam stresses the importance of the script being a literal translation. “You’ve got to know what the bare bones of it is, when you have the bare bones you can put your flesh on it. Anya ultimately wants to present the play rather than putting her own spin on it. These are masterpieces, you don’t need to change much, they work incredibly well. To change one too much would be like changing the notes of Beethoven, they’re so exquisitely put together.”
The next step is to test Reiss’s version in rehearsal. “You’ve ultimately got to make things work with actors. Actors are incredibly perceptive, intelligent and truthful, and will bring all sorts of questions and thoughts to the choices Anya and I have made. Often rehearsal is about focusing and assessing our choice with actors. We could choose a particular context, and then in the first week of rehearsal with the actors find it’s not working and have to choose something else. We’d be happy to do that.” Fortunately, given their three week rehearsal time, this wasn’t the case with Uncle Vanya.
A big reason why this limited rehearsal has not impacted on the production appears to lie in the strength of their relationship. “We’re eerily symbiotic together. We’re very close. She’s in every rehearsal and has a lot of input, not only in the text but in terms of staging and character work. It’s matured and got deeper as it went on, we know what we’re doing now. On The Seagull we weren’t sure whether it was going to work but now we’re confident in the craft and what we want to do. I’ve found in her someone who I expect to be a lifetime collaborator, whether it’s her plays or adaptations or translations.
Although Bolam seems to have an idea what might be next: “Why can’t we do new Russian plays? It’s a great privilege and joy to work on the plays of my favourite playwright, Chekhov, but I am conscious these are plays are done all the time and I’m hoping me and Anya can turn to new international plays once we’re done with our Chekhov.”
Bolam emphasises the importance of finding great collaborators when I asked him what advice he’d have for aspiring directors. “My advice for younger directors is, find any way you can of directing. Sometimes when directors start out they get a feeling like they need to be invited to the party, they need the validation of doing a play at a particular venue or working with a particular person. You need to find your own collaborators, people you want to work with. Make your own party and your own work. People respond to that energy and that dynamism. I was guilty of this when I was younger, I waited for validation, but you can make things in so many ways. Just make something, make something, make something. Nina says something similar in The Seagull, it’s about enduring, it’s not about fame or attention or money, it’s about saying this is what I do and I like to tell stories.”
Uncle Vanya is at the St. James Theatre from 8 October to 8 November. For further information and tickets, visit the St James Theatre’s website.