At the age of 29 and three quarters, I’m not sure if I officially fall into the ‘young in the arts’ category anymore. Having spent my early adult life against a backdrop of continual headlines citing ‘Exciting young writers/actors/directors’, I’ll generally do anything I can to avoid jumbling another production into this category. But when you find yourself interviewing two people in a Shoreditch coffee shop and discussing a critically acclaimed collaboration that began after meeting on Twitter, it’s hard not to be lured into the trap.
Herein lies the surprise; Chekhov, that most traditional of playwrights, is the third – albeit silent – person in their partnership.
On paper writer Anya Reiss and director Russell Bolam wouldn’t strike you as obvious collaborators. Her favourite – or at least “top three”, she panics – playwright is Dennis Kelly; his is the Russian titan. But a shared vison of making his work relatable has now created a trio of much debated, exciting and dynamic productions. First there was The Seagull and Three Sisters at the intimate Southwark Playhouse, and now the John Hannah-led Uncle Vanya which, thanks to their regular producer Emily Dobbs’ award from Stage One, has taken them from London Bridge to the St James Theatre as part of the One Stage Season.
Over a brief break in a rehearsals, I met with the pair to discover how a Chekhov buff and a writer best known for her biting new plays at the Royal Court Theatre came together to reimagine 19th century Russia for a new audience.
Uncle Vanya is your third Chekhov collaboration. How did you first come to work together?
Bolam: I did a Philip Ripley play called Shivered at the Southwark Playhouse. Southwark Playhouse has a really young audience and I remember thinking it would be brilliant to do a Chekhov for that audience. I saw Anya in the bar and half recognised her. She’d come to see Shivered and everything sort of matched up; I was already thinking of doing The Seagull with Joseph Drake…
Reiss: You tweeted me, didn’t you?
Bolam: She [Anya] tweeted praise about Shivered, I tweeted back… so it’s serendipitous really that I spotted her in the bar and I was already thinking of doing a Chekhov.
Reiss: And I did as I was told.
Bolam: I had to convince you at first…
At what point did the idea of then doing a second (Three Sisters) and third Chekhov get raised?
Bolam: I sent you a text saying ‘Shall we do another one?’ just after The Seagull had opened. Once we’d done two we said ‘Let’s do them all, the four great plays.’ So we’ll do The Cherry Orchard at some point.
Is the initial idea to make them approachable for a young audience still the case?
Bolam: Yes, younger, newer…. There was an Artistic Director who I worked with earlier in my career and I adore him, but he said something that really frustrated me. He said ‘Nobody under 40 can truly understand Chekhov.’ I sort of know what he means in that you’ve got to feel like you’re in the second part of your life to truly appreciate what a lot of the characters are talking about, but it really infuriated me because I thought ‘I can really identify with a lot of the younger characters.’ Chekhov is seen as this preserve of an older crowd.
Reiss: Almost like the [preserve of the] middle-class as well. The people that have studied it and know it and have seen it loads. It’s about making it real.
Bolam: The most thrilling part of The Seagull was watching groups of teenagers gripped by it as equally as they would be by a Simon Stephens or Anya Reiss play. It really felt like we’d made it accessible and it was about their lives. But it is also for those other people that we’ve talked about.
Reiss: You’ve directed the way you want it to be and you’re a Chekhov buff, so it’s not dumbed down.
Where is your version of Uncle Vanya set?
Reiss: In 2014 in Lincolnshire.
Bolam: Part of our Research & Development week [for Uncle Vanya] was putting a pin in the map of where exactly it is set. What was brilliant about Lincolnshire is not a lot of people know a lot about it, other than sausages. It has a slight other quality, compared to other rural communities in England.
Reiss: Accent-wise is what you mean, isn’t it?
Bolam: Yes, you hear the accent spoken and it’s undeniably rural England but there’s no cultural association attached. When you hear Somerset you start to think Last Of The Summer Wine, whereas with Lincolnshire accent you can’t quite place it, which is perfect because then when you hear it you’re not going to make cultural judgements or have affinities as to what that rural community is.
The play is full of lethargy and quite melancholic. How do you keep it energetic?
Bolam: Oh it’s funny! I mean yes, there’s a dark, melancholic heart to the play, but it’s so funny.
Reiss: Yes it is really funny; all the Chekhov’s are funny and that’s why we’ve always cast a comedian in the productions so far. It’s embracing that rather than fighting it.
Was John Hannah top of your list to star?
Bolam: Oh yeah, absolutely. When we realised it might be possible we got very excited.
Reiss: I think we thought he wouldn’t say yes!
Bolam: John clearly has a brilliant sense of humour and comic mind; he’s alert to the comic potential in the play, so that’s been wonderful.
How does your relationship work as writer and director?
Reiss: It differs every time. This one we’ve collaborated more… but we go back and forth on the script a lot anyway.
Bolam: When it comes to concept, you’ve come up with pretty much the setting for The Seagull, Three Sisters and this so I’m often the healthy buffer in terms of what we gain and what we lose with each choice [you make].
Reiss: The healthy buffer?!
Bolam: That’s how I’d describe myself! You can talk until you’re blue in the brain about concept, but ultimately I want Anya to go away and really do the version she wants to do and then I can see on the page if we feel it works.
Reiss: Yes, it’s not like you made me pitch it to you or something.
Bolam: Anya has to totally believe in the reality that she’s creating for the updating and for the modernisation. If she was made to do it in some way she didn’t truly have conviction then I think you’d really struggle wouldn’t you?
Reiss: We’ve both got exactly the same aim as to what we want from the plays and we’ve got the same taste, haven’t we?
Bolam: And shared affinities as to what makes a really great drama, theatre, what’s funny… It’s really quite wonderful, if I’m allowed to say that. We never have these conversations alone!
So you haven’t had any fall outs about any decisions in any of the three productions?
Reiss: Not really. The biggest fight we’ve ever had was about the lighting for this one! That’s the most angry you’ve made me, about the fade out at the end. That’s the most annoyed I’ve been with you through the whole thing and that’s lights.
Bolam: Anya hates fades outs at the end of plays…
Do you choose the setting for the play in order to make it feel relevant to today’s audience?
Bolam: You’ve got to trust that the resonances will take care of themselves. I think sometimes directors or playwrights, when they take a classic, feel pressure to prove that it resonates, and I feel the more successful versions allow the audience in to find what resonates there for them. Often it will resonate in a way that you couldn’t even have dreamed of.
The thing is with these plays is they’re possibly the best four plays ever written, you could argue, and they will endure because they are masterpieces of humanity.
Does that not feel terrifying for you Anya, to have the pressure of updating “the best four plays ever written”?
Reiss: Not really because it feels like we’re just trying to help it, if that makes sense. It feels like what we’re trying to do isn’t about us imposing concepts on it or finding why it matters today, or any of that stuff, it just feels like you’re helping it out of its time and context and helping it to make sense to the audience.
Bolam: The joy and freedom of a true, bottomless masterpiece is that, because ultimately the play is filtered through the creatives who work on it, the actors who act in it, the adapter, the translator, you can’t do a definitive production, you can only enhance aspects of it; it’s a gift.
For someone who feels Uncle Vanya isn’t for them, why should they see your production?
Bolam: Because of the nature of what Anya does and what we do, it will feel like a new play. They’re going to laugh their guts out and have their hearts broken, and that’s why all people should come.
Uncle Vanya plays at the St James Theatre until 8 November. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website here.