Chekhov’s masterpiece Uncle Vanya makes its way to the York Theatre Royal under the experienced hand of Helen Wilson. She has previously directed The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters in York, and hopes to complete the quartet with The Seagull in the future. George Rayson chats to the director about her current project.
GR: How would you describe Uncle Vanya to someone perhaps unfamiliar with Chekhov?
HW: It’s a pattern of unrequited love in the typical Russian style, everyone is in love with someone who doesn’t love them back. If you think about the plot of Twelfth Night, it’s fairly similar to that. Interestingly enough, Twelfth Night was showing at the Moscow Arts Theatre at a very similar time.
GR: You’ve compared the play to a ‘traditional’ comedy there, and Chekhov was insistent that his plays were funny. Are you intending to ham up the humour, or will it come naturally?
HW: I don’t think you need to ham up the humour, it’s in the writing. If you go back to the text, near the very beginning the Nanna says to the doctor ‘you’ve aged, you’ve lost your good looks,’ and it’s fairly obvious that that’s meant to be funny. I think the audience, as long as they’re not inhibited to laugh, will laugh. The way I’m looking at it, it’s a slice of life, here are people with all their flaws, we love them, we cry with them, we laugh with them. Everyone who’s been to a funeral will testify, there are always funny moments and you’re kind of laughing through the tears, which the Russians with their emotional palette are more used to doing.
GR: Implied in what you’re saying is that British people have a difficult relationship with Chekhovian emotions.
HW: Very much so. My biggest worry is people’s aversion to seeing this play because they think it’s Russian, it’s gloomy, the world is gloomy enough. But I think the world has always been gloomy, and so the message here is about trying to cope with life as it is, not as it should be. It is a rollercoaster of emotions all the way through.
GR: Has it been a difficult rehearsal process then, to get that right?
HW: I think I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been dilligent about casting and I think about it a great deal, and I know what qualities I want in people.
GR: What are those qualities?
HW: So I had about 10 or 12 girls who wanted to be Sonya, all very good, but I just knew it had to be Martha [Owen]. Something about her emotional truth which was very striking. I think in many ways, although it’s called Uncle Vanya, it’s really about her. She holds the whole thing together.
GR: Are there any surprises? Have you been discovering new things about the play?
HW: Lots of surprises! I’m finding more and more new things in the text. I’m finding it’s even more intricately written than I ever thought. It’s really deeply psychological. Because Chekhov was a doctor, people used to tell him an awful lot about their illnesses, their emotional life, what was going on in their head, and I think that comes across in the play. I think British people have this view of him as a very studious man, but he was actually a bon viveur. There’s this view of him as the man with the monocle, looking ill, but he had a great sense of mischief throughout his life. When he died, he asked for a glass of champagne, that’s the kind of person he was.
GR: Anything you want to say in the way of closing remarks?
HW: People should cast aside their prejudices! Vanya is absurd, it’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s wonderful.
Uncle Vanya runs from 28th February to 10th March at York Theatre Royal. Further info and tickets available here.