Interview: The Press (8 July 2011)

This interview was published in The Press on 8 July 2011.

Dear Uncle

by Charles Hutchinson

Matthew Warchus
[1] had a cat’s eye moment - as in why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? - when mulling over what he wanted to direct next on stage.

The Selby and York-raised director suggested “doing an Anton Chekhov play as an Alan Ayckbourn play”, a challenge taken up by producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers.

“They asked me to do a version of
Uncle Vanya,” recalls Sir Alan. “I said: ‘Wait a minute, there are some very, very good versions of Vanya, what do you want mine to be?’. David just said, ‘I’d like it to be you’ and then Matthew chimed in, ‘Don’t make it too Russian!’. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that’.”

Sir Alan’s version was commissioned originally for the West End in late 2008, after Warchus directed Sir Alan’s
The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, where he had approached the Conquests “as if they were Chekhov”.

Sir Alan’s play never made it to the London stage, however. Instead, the world premiere of
Dear Uncle opens this week on home turf at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, directed by the playwright himself.

“There was supposed to be this exciting cast being set up for the West End - Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott - but Matthew Warchus got more commitments and we were just waiting,” says Sir Alan. “Matthew eventually said to David Pugh: ‘I feel terrible about this as we got the ball rolling; why don’t you ask Sir Alan if he’d like to do it in Scarborough?’.”

Sir Alan had directed
Uncle Vanya at the SJT in 1972, describing it as “one of my favourite plays, a lovely piece, from one of my great all-time heroes”, but did he have any trepidations about adapting it?

“One always has trepidations,” he says. “The closer you get to the original writer, the more nervous you become, because you feel you may just be treading on his heels. So my first instinct was to move as far geographically away from Russia as possible; staying within my own field of knowledge. I’m always a tremendous believer in never writing something which you know nothing about.”

Serendipitously, he “plumped fairly randomly” for a setting of the Lake District in 1935. “I then discovered during research there were these foolish policies of replacing the Lake District’s trees with pine trees, in the hope that no one would notice, and therefore destroying most of the natural wildlife that goes with it!

“I found myself in a local Lake District’s hornet’s nest as there were a lot of people getting quite agitated. I thought, that’s quite interesting, as in the original play there was this - at the time - slightly quirky man who had a passion for forests and didn’t want to see them destroyed; I think some divine spirit was guiding me! That particular theme, of course, has grown increasingly relevant and urgent.”

Alan brings an affectionate English slant to Chekhov’s classic love story, in which Marcus loves Helena although she is already married and can never be his. Meanwhile, Marcus’s schoolgirl niece, Sonya, is secretly in love with Charles, the family doctor and confirmed bachelor, but alas in her heart of hearts she knows it is probably in vain.

To make things still more hopeless, Helena and Charles appear to be developing an attraction that is surely unthinkable. As summer comedy grows into autumnal farce, matters inevitably lead to winter regrets, both for what has occurred and what might have been.

Analysing his adaptation with its change of period and location, Alan says: “
Dear Uncle is my own version and I still feel it’s very much Chekhov because nothing is ever forced out of its natural role. There are plenty of versions of Uncle Vanya you can see and if you want one that’s more accurate, then there are those, but this is my take on the play.”

His take involves a makeover for Sonya, played by Amy Loughton. “The one deviation I was very conscious of making was the character of Sonya, who I made younger than normally,” says Sir Alan. “In the original she was nearing what would be described as spinsterhood and in love with a man who was older than her and never really noticed her; rather cruelly I think.

“I’ve made her a 16-year-old schoolgirl who has everything to live for. She develops the same sort of passion for Doctor Ash as Sonya did for Astrov in the original, except in this case it’s got that comic twist that he never really considers her. This rather mawkish schoolgirl is pining around him and he can’t think of anything to say to her except ‘how are things at school?’. She’s agonised, but I think in a sense that makes her slightly less tragic and the emphasis is very much thrown on to Uncle Marcus.”

Sir Alan is directing
Dear Uncle just as he would direct one of his own plays.

“I look for the same seriousness and the same fun. There’s a clue to how to approach
Uncle Vanya in the original; if you read a play that at the third act curtain has a man running in being pursued by another man with a loaded revolver, having just fired it, and then says “Missed. Again!”, you know this is a comedy!”

The darker that Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s plays have become, the more frequently his writing has drawn comparison with the works of Chekhov, and he does not question that assessment.

“In that Chekhov tried to address a rather broad canvas of emotions, I think it’s a fair comparison,” says Sir Alan. “But the knowledge of his plays nudges me to be more bold – just to mix darkness and light, but I guess that was always in me.”

Given the Ayckbourn factor, surely it will not be necessary to nudge Scarborough theatregoers to be bolder too by seeing Dear Uncle. “I hope there’s an audience there who will also come blind and one can say afterward to them, you know you’ve been watching a Russian classic!” says Sir Alan. “When you got to see a Chekhov play, you don’t know what you’re going to get because there are so many ways of handling it; it could be a very agonising evening with a lot of breast-beating or it could be an evening where it’s painfully funny. It all depends on the approach. At best, I think it’s a mixture of both.”

Dear Uncle and the upcoming world premiere of Neighbourhood Watch will mark Sir Alan’s 50th anniversary as a director at the age of 72.

Since making his debut in 1961 with Patrick Hamilton’s
Gaslight in Scarborough, he has directed more than 300 productions from Scarborough to the National Theatre and New York.

He may be Britain’s most performed living playwright, but Sir Alan has a surprising revelation: “I always consider myself as a director who writes, rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time.”

Sir Alan’s initial stage calling had been as an actor.

“But the director
Stephen Joseph gradually encouraged a second career in order to put a spoke in the wheels of my acting career,” he recalls.

“He encouraged me to direct and that is the poisoned chalice for an actor; if you really get the taste for directing, you slowly tire of acting because directing, of course, is global and you have a view of the entire production. Whereas as an actor you’re only in charge of one section of the play – unless you’re one of those actors who gives other actors notes! As far as acting is concerned, once you’ve directed I think the power of it takes over.”

Website Notes:
[1] At the time, Matthew Warchus was an award-winning director, who had recently directed the acclaimed revival of Alan Ayckbourn's
The Norman Conquests. He subsequently was appointed the Artistic Director of The Old Vic.

Copyright: The Press. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.