Dear Uncle is Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. It has just opened at the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, in its first major revival since its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2012.
The revival of Dear Uncle is extremely apt given that Alan relocated the play’s action to the Lake District during the 1930s making the Theatre by the Lake the perfect venue for the revival. To mark the production, this is a reproduction of an interview of mine with Alan for the world premiere offering a bit of insight and background to the play.
Simon Murgatroyd: Dear Uncle was originally commissioned for the West End, how did that come about?
Alan Ayckbourn: Dear Uncle was commissioned in late 2008 by the producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers. I got a phone call the day after The Norman Conquests opened at the Old Vic. David had the director Matthew Warchus in the office with him and was quite excited by the thought of doing a Chekhov revival because Matthew had said to him, he had approached The Norman Conquests as if they were Chekhov. The conversation then went in reverse with Matthew saying he’d like to do a Chekhov as an Alan Ayckbourn play. So they asked me to do a version of Uncle Vanya and I said: “Wait a minute, there are some very, very good versions of Uncle 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: “OK, I’ll do that.”
What led to the play being premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre rather than the West End?
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. Matthew eventually said to David Pugh, I feel terrible about this as we got the ball rolling, why don’t you ask Alan if he’d like to do it in Scarborough.
Have you had any previous experience of the play?
Uncle Vanya is one of my favourite plays. It’s a lovely piece. It was a play I’d directed in 1972 in Scarborough and liked very much from one of my great all-time heroes.
Did you enjoy writing it?
As you can appreciate, my version was written quite a long time ago, so when we recently read for the auditions – which are the very first time you hear it read out loud by professional actors – hearing it brought back all the fun because it was quite fun writing it.
Did you have any trepidation about adapting such a classic play?
One always has trepidations. 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.
The result is the Lake District in 1935. How did you end up there?
Having plumped fairly randomly on the Lake District as a setting in 1935, I 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 at that time. 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.
Other than the time and setting, did you deviate from the play?
The one deviation I was very conscious of making was the character of Sonya who I made younger than normally, 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 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 onto Uncle Marcus.
Your writing is frequently compared to Chekhov, do you think that’s a fair comparison in terms of what you’re trying to achieve?
In that Chekhov tried to address a rather broad canvas of emotions, I think it’s a fair comparison. 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.
It must be difficult knowing how this play will be received, what are your hopes for the play?
I hope there’s an audience out there who will also come blind to it so one can say afterward to them, ‘you know you’ve been watching a Russian classic!’ When you go 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 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 to see one that’s more accurate, then there are those. But this is my take on the play.
Dear Uncle, directed by Tom Littler, can be seen in rep at the Theatre by the Lake until 2 November 2019. Further details can be found at the theatre’s website here.