National Theatre Live: Vanya is an Exemplary Showcase for Andrew Scott’s Talent

National Theatre Live: Vanya is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s renowned play Uncle Vanya. Chekhov’s work delves into central concerns of unrequited love, existential dilemmas, inheritance struggles, and the relentless march of time. As with his earlier works, no character’s life has any fulfilment.

Taking sole acting duties here, Andrew Scott has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Clinging to a bottle of vodka, ruminating about the lives of the six broken people he plays, flirting with himself, or crying into a piano. Here, it is about multiplying the human experience which rests solely on his central performance.

Since its debut in 1899, Uncle Vanya has seen numerous performances and adaptations. Audiences may recognise it most recently in 2021’s Drive My Car,where protagonist Yūsuke adapted the play into a multilingual production. Under the guidance of director Sam Yates, this rendition presents a contemporary take on the classic narrative, offering audiences a funnelled-down perspective on its enduring themes. By pushing every character nto one performer’s memory can be a hard ask for the audience to navigate, but Scott rises to the challenge.

The central drama takes place in a country estate owned by a man named Alexander.Here, Alexander is an elderly and frail filmmaker who loves his urban way of life. He revisits the rural estate, stirring up much trouble for his brother-in-law Vanya, also known as Uncle Ivan. The titular middle-aged character has been minding the estate incessantly. The harsh lands of rural Russia have not been kind to him.

Vanya feels that Alexander has had his time, insisting he has yet to produce a good film in a long while. Alexander’s second, and much younger, wife Helena has also returned, as has his daughter Sonia. Vanya believes Helena deserves someone far younger as a spouse, but this is a world where if you betray your wife, you betray your country. Also in the mix is Vanya’s mother, Elizabeth, whose deceased daughter was Alexander’s first wife. They are all visited regularly by country doctor Michael, a man who objects to deforestation and has solid ecological convictions.

The feeling of unrequited love is amplified across multiple characters. Vanya has intense feelings for Helena, as does Michael. Sonia is also in love with Michael, but he is unaware of her feelings. Feelings that are shared cause disruption or disappointment. Vanya feels he’s lived in the shadow of Alexander most of his life. Elizabeth, who has complete respect for Alexander, consistently tries to dissuade her son from that thought pattern. Each of these characters give Andrew Scott a puzzle board where the pieces must fit together. However, in the world of Vanya, they don’t. Desire and longing get chopped down like a tree turned into paper.

Scott is a true marvel to watch, consistently able to switch on a dime the role he is required to embody. While the scenes where he experiences moments of personal intimacy may raise eyebrows, it’s impressive to see that Scott has an incredible ability to make what is so visually singular multitudinously resonant. While this production could have, and has, been done better with an expanded cast, there’s no denying his range, memory, and pathos as an actor.

However, while Scott is impressive, Vanya struggles to shake the feeling of being a gimmick. While Scott will repeatedly proclaim each character’s name to signpost who he is playing, it becomes tiring as you try to keep up with all eight characters. There are moments where genuine bewilderment kicks in trying to keep up with what personality that the play demands Scott to shift between; this is a feeling that might be less likely to creep in if you have a broad understanding of the source material.

The sparse set design can cause a sense of alienation for the audience, with its minimalist presentation existing to allow for the sole focus on Scott’s performance. Mismatched chairs, unpainted doorways, a pop-up kitchenette, even an isolated piano and swing creates a stripped-down set that resonates thematically.

National Theatre Live: Vanya is an exemplary showcase for Andrew Scott’s talent and versatility, much of which the world is already familiar with given his turns in Fleabag or All of Us Strangers. In being primarily faithful to its source material, this adaptation safely recounts the human condition’s failures, complexities, and desires. While this could have been delivered with more than a one-person cast, as with Vanya, “In life, we have to try” – and try very well, Andrew Scott does.

Director: Sam Yates

Cast: Andrew Scott

Writer: Simon Stephens, (based on Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya)

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Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

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