John Byrne’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is set on a rural estate in the Scottish Highlands in the 1960s. The original Russian play premiered in 1899 and the Byrne adaptation makes the play more immediately accessible to a Scottish audience but closely parallels the original. The rural characters speak with north of Scotland accents and dialect, Aleksandr becomes Sandy, Yelena becomes Elaine, Sonja is Shona – you get the drift.
It took a few minutes to tune into Kirsty Morag’s accent, so well was she played by Maureen Carr. Sandy, a sophisticated art critic played by John Stahl, has been living in London and has recently returned, with his second wife to his rural estate. His announcement that he plans to sell the estate is a bombshell in the lives of his daughter Shona from his first marriage, former mother-in-law and his brother-in-law, Varick. John Stahl brings all the gloss of London society to the part but his high handed manner doesn’t go down well with the family. Ashley Smith gave a great performance as Shona although she was more convincing in her relationship with her Uncle Varick than in her relationship with her father or her unrequited love for the Doctor. George Anton as the Doctor was comfortable in a farcical scene where he misinterprets Elaine’s (glossy, young, second wife of Sandy) probing questions about his feelings for the smitten Shona. Elaine, although tempted, rejects his advances.
Willie John, nicknamed Tumshie-face and played by Dave Anderson, had a tough job singing Beatles songs during the set changes. It’s as well this production was played as a comedy because the singing was a challenge! Other than help fix the action in the context of the ‘60s I found this an unnecessary and awkward distraction. Neither the music nor the set (confined within a broken picture frame) added hugely to the production.
The outstanding part of the evening was the performance of Jimmy Chisholm as Uncle Varick. He has immense magnetism on stage and the swing from manic energy to suicidal despair was absolutely convincing. He brought a depth of character and a passion to the performance which was outstanding. I last saw Chisholm in The Collector at The Traverse last September, when he gave a similarly emotional performance. He is a master of his craft and worth going to see anytime.
The Byrne adaptation emphasises the comedy aspects, almost but not quite masking the Chekhov melodrama. It’s easy to be carried along by the witty dialogue; early on there’s a reference to ‘the female Enoch, bringing new meaning to the Rivers of Blood speech’ and there are many comedic moments but the fact remains that none of the characters are happy or have fulfilled lives. The essence of Chekhov’s melodrama remains. Despite, or maybe because of this, it is an entertaining night out. If you miss it at the King’s this week, you can catch it at The Brunton Theatre next month.