Interview: 'Creating This Work Has Forced Me to Completely Rethink Directing For The Stage': Director Sam Yates on Embracing New Dimensions in VANYA

'I find it hard to stop at the end of the day."

By: Sep. 06, 2023
Interview: 'Creating This Work Has Forced Me to Completely Rethink Directing For The Stage': Director Sam Yates on Embracing New Dimensions in VANYA

In just a few days' time Andrew Scott will make his eagerly awaited return to the West End in Simon Stephen’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Directed by Sam Yates, this new radical adaptation sees Scott playing every single character in the play. 

BroadwayWorld caught up with Yates as he prepared to take the show to the West End to discuss the enduring appeal of Chekhov, having to rethink his method of directing and the joy of reuniting with Andrew Scott.

Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov’s most enduring plays. Why do audiences keep returning to it? 

Perhaps because the play offers such a full emotional experience which is comic, tragic, disturbing, ambivalent, relatable. Mostly I think we see a great range of human behaviour across multiple characters and ages, so in some way the play speaks to people at various stages of their lives, and offers insight into situations many of us have experienced or are experiencing. Few plays offer us the opportunity to examine the human psyche in such an accessible, fun way. Also, it must surely be because of the characters themselves. They’re good to be around.

This is the first Chekhov play you have directed. What particular aspects of his writing appeal to you as a director?

I was especially interested in time, and how we choose to spend it. There’s a wonderful book called 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman that I was reading around the same time as Uncle Vanya. The principle of the book is that the average human has 4000 weeks on earth. That crossed over with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which is sort of the first self-help book about how to navigate life. Uncle Vanya seemed to speak to those questions – and I later learned that Chekhov kept Meditations very close to his bedside, with hundreds of underlinings, so in some way I was drawn to the same questions that I think Chekhov was trying to answer when he wrote the play.

Sam Yates and Andrew Scott in rehearsal

How do you think will Simon Stephens’ adaptation of VANYA will speak to audiences in 2023? 

Simon’s work is always surprising and original. I never feel I know where his dialogue will take me. I think his heart is as huge as Chekhov’s. He has a curiosity about behaviour, and a deep understanding and respect for Chekhov, with a totally distinctive rhythm. And a great sense of comedy, and the dynamics of words. Simon, Andrew and I want audiences to feel welcome, embraced and connected to the characters in the play and their essence, and Simon’s adaptation works to that purpose. 

VANYA is one of a handful of one actor shows hitting the West End (Eddie Izzard in Great Expectations. Sarah Snook in The Picture of Dorian Gray next year?) Why do you think they are having a spike in popularity? 

In one person plays, there’s an intense bond with the actor and individual audience members. Practically speaking, there’s only one face for them to watch, so the collective focus is maximised. It also allows us to see more of the actor, deeper into their psyche, and follow them in the moment, in great detail. So, it is a potent live experience that can only occur in a theatre. Perhaps we are needing to feel that tangible, almost tactile connection to one another in this form? Maybe it is nourishing to share time with a single human being when we are subjected to a lot of frenetic noise in the digital world? Often the more personal the work, the more universal.

Sam Yates and Andrew Scott in rehearsal

What do you think will be your biggest challenges when bringing a one man play to the stage?

Creating work in this way has forced me to completely rethink directing for the stage. The grammar of storytelling in something we’ve created in the process. Our challenges have been about making decisions about which character to follow, or which to give the reaction shot to, for example. New dimensions reveal themselves in this form, and we are always alert to them, and to how to embrace them.

You have worked with Andrew Scott before on the short film The Hope Rooms. What is it like reuniting with him to work on a play? 

It has been a joy, and that’s an understatement, to work with Andrew again. I’ve always been astonished by his capacity as an actor, both technically, emotionally and physically. He and I are co-creators of the production (alongside Simon Stephens and designer Rosanna Vize) and so I’ve seen him working in the room in multiple capacities, including director and writer. I love nothing more than empowering actors to bring all of themselves to a process, and Andrew has been extraordinary during rehearsal. Inexhaustible, inventive, collaborative, playful and curious. We both find it hard to stop at the end of the day.

Andrew Scott has performed a Simon Stephens’-penned one man show before. How did this version of VANYA come about?

Along with Emily Vaughan-Barratt and Ben Lowy of Wessex Grove, we commissioned Simon to write an adaptation. Simon, Andrew and I got together to read it, and each took a few characters. As we went along, and talked about each character, it was clear that there was something valuable and interesting in experiencing these characters from a single source. That the act of creation and storytelling and acting were all connected to the essence of the play, which, along with other themes, is about connection and isolation, about why we need one another, about theatre itself.

I’ve directed a one-person production before (Incantata with Stanley Townsend, also designed by Vize), and am excited by the connection and focus between actor and audience in this format. Andrew is an actor who has somehow always fostered a completely singular connection with audiences, so I was interested in the those things and how they could work together.

Can you give us an insight in how you are planning to approach the adaptation?

Come and see!

Vanya plays at the Duke of York's Theatre from 15 September - 23 October

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner


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