Interview: James Stone Talks New Production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya

A new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is heading to the stage under the direction of James Stone and delivered by Tales Retold Theatre Company. I caught up with Stone to talk all things Uncle Vanya ahead of the show’s run at the Hope Theatre from 23rd April to 11th May 2019 (tickets here)…

What exactly drew you to Uncle Vanya as your latest offering?

I was sent the script by Cassie Hodges, Producer of Tales Retold, and was immediately drawn to Brendan Murray’s adaptation. I loved Theatr Clwyd’s touring studio production in 2017 and was intrigued by the possibility of an even more intimate version at The Hope. We approached Brendan to further reduce his adaptation for a smaller cast and the result proved too good to resist.

Do you generally find yourself more drawn to adaptations of classics than modern texts or new writing?

Not particularly. I’m attracted to profound and powerful theatre of all kinds, so interesting retellings of the classics and modern or new plays appeal to me equally. Comedy or tragedy, old or new, if there’s a great story to be told I’m interested.

Is this adaptation relatively faithful? Are there revisions in the name of modernisation?

For his adaptation Brendan revised the language. He imagined how he would write the play using Chekhov’s characters, thoughts and ideas, but expressed in language that might actually have been spoken by a native English speaker of the time – or rather, that gives that impression while keeping the dramatic action moving forward. It’s a marvellous rendering – easy on the modern ear but faithful to Chekhov’s setting, storyline and dramatic style.

What do you think performing a much shorter adaptation brings to the story overall?

To be honest, the reduced length was a necessity of our limited cast size and space, we simply had to lose some characters. However, what has emerged as a result is a deliciously distilled version of this much-loved masterpiece.  A shorter script has allowed a greater degree of naturalism, a more focussed delivery, where the essence of the story has room to breathe. I love the original, but this version has a fascinating life of its own.

How do you approach a production like this? Do you set out with a concrete concept or would you say your approach is more collaborative?

A bit of both. I certainly start out with some firm ideas around the style and feel of the production. Our rehearsal period is not long, so some early conceptual structure is necessary to ensure we’re performance-ready. However, our creatives and particularly our cast play pivotal collaborative roles in the final product. It’s important to me as a director to enable actors to breathe truthful lives and relationships into their characters. You’re never quite sure how it will all turn out, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. 

How does your production take shape – how exactly are you going about bringing Nineteenth Century Russia to the stage? 

A lot of research is involved. So much of Chekhov’s life is in his writing, so his biography and other works form a firm contextual foundation. Besides that, we’ve researched Russian tea drinking traditions, the pre-revolutionary class system, religious traditions…it all helps. Of course, as a small company, we are limited as to how faithfully we can reproduce Vanya’s house at The Hope – Russian antiques are not cheap – but we’ve done our best to bring a strong flavour of the time and place to the stage.

Uncle Vanya remains a popular choice for companies – how would you say your production differs from productions to have gone before?

The style of the adaptation and the intimacy of the venue make our production unique. The pace and language of the piece coupled with the proximity of the audience to the characters delivers an almost immersive experience – you really feel as if you’re there round the table and the samovar. It’s deliciously intense.

Considering its origin of time and place, what do you think Uncle Vanya has to offer modern audiences?

The beauty of Chekhov’s later plays, particularly Uncle Vanya, is the focus on human kind as it actually is. Certainly, Brexit Britain seems a million miles from Russia in 1899, but the central themes of the play, of individual alienation, problematic love and the search for a meaningful life are as relevant today as they have always been. Some of the passages regarding environmental concerns were remarkably prescient.

Finally, sell your show to us in just one sentence!

Short, intimate and intense – a delicious shot of 100% proof Chekhov.

So there you have it! Remember, Uncle Vanya is playing at the Hope Theatre from 23rd April to 11th May 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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