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On 7 March, Uncle Vanya cast members Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa KirbyRichard LumsdenHilton McRae, Tobias Menzies, Ann Queensberry and Susan Wooldridge stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the show, hosted by Assistant Director Jocelyn Cox. Below are highlights from their conversation.

Jocelyn: Hi everyone. I’m just going to ask the cast to introduce themselves…

Jessica: Hello, I’m Jessica Brown Findlay and I play Sonia.

Richard: Good evening, I’m Richard Lumsden and I play Cartwright, or Telegin, as he was originally known in the other versions.

Tobias: Hi, I’m Tobias, I play Michael, or Astrov.

Hilton: I’m Hilton and I play Alexander.

Susan: I’m Susan and I play Maria.

Ann: I’m Ann and I play Nanny.

Vanessa: Vanessa, Elena.

Jocelyn: I’d like to start by asking the cast: which line is your favourite in the show?

Susan: I like the boys’ song. It’s something that Annie and I look forward to every night!

Jessica: There’s a real moment of bravery and mission when I say to Michael, “Out of all the people I’ve met, you’re the best one.” I think it’s the gentlest, sweetest way to say “I love you.” It’s something she says to those she loves, but to say, “Out of all the people I love, you are also the best person” – not only does she love him, but she likes him as a person, regardless of what happens or if anything would ever happen.

Hilton (to Tobias): There’s your line to Vanya about “you’re not weird, you’re just strange” – what is the line?

Tobias: “You’re not insane, you’re just strange.”

Jocelyn: Obviously we have a revolving stage. How did you find that during the rehearsal process and during performance?

Tobias: It does feel like a huge part of the show, this microscopic movement, finding the physical language of that was a big part of finding the play. Maybe stillness is required and if the world is moving, what does that mean for us? That took a bit of finding, some group language. What was it like to watch?

Audience Member 1: In the beginning, I noticed that the revolve was moving anticlockwise, when things were not going well, but then towards the end when things sort of went back to normal, it started moving clockwise. Then I started thinking, how does that relate to the entrances and exits?

Tobias: There wasn’t a general rule; it was sort of as required. When you need to get on quickly, you use a shorter entrance.

Richard: But also it made use of the space outside the stage, so you get the changing perspective as the room turns. I’m sure, as the audience, as the perspective changes you’re readjusting your impression of what those characters are doing, and similarly we are trying to readjust where we all are at that moment.

Hilton: I remember Robert saying, “I want to see the wine glass collect water from the leak”; and you only see that because of the revolve.

Jocelyn: We have an incredibly skilled Deputy Stage Manager who manually manipulates the revolve. It is absolutely integral to the show and a very difficult process, and it’s largely down to her that you get to see it.

Vanessa: I didn’t actually notice that it was turning a different way until the other week!

Hilton: I had two friends in last week and the guy said to his wife about 10 minutes in, “The stage is revolving.” And she said, “Thank Christ, I thought it was me!”

Audience Member 2: I think the interesting thing about this production is that it mediates between the comedy in Chekhov and the despair. It’s like there’s a window and fresh air gets in every so often. I was wondering how you managed that tone.

Jocelyn: We had a very open discovery process during rehearsals. There were rehearsals where we played a scene and we found it very tragic, and the next time we’d come back to it we’d unpick it a bit more and you’d find comedy within it. There was always a really big focus on making people that you recognise; everyone has tragic and comic moments in their lives, that’s what life is, so it was about them being real people and letting them breathe and letting them do things naturally.

Tobias: I don’t think we ever really went about making it funny.

Richard: It also changes from night to night. Certain audiences will not want to pick up on humour and there’ll be huge silences on nights where previously there had been a very noisy response. Rob and Jo said that we should never assume that a certain moment is comic or tragic, because depending on the mood of the people in the room, that moment will be received differently. If the audience choose to take a moment to heart, then that response is the true response of the moment, on the following night it might have the opposite effect, both of those are good responses. It makes it very enjoyable to play because we don’t quite know how the audience are going to react to any particular moment.

Hilton: Rob famously said, “If they laugh, punish them with emotional pain!”

Tobias: I think you just trust the writing. Chekhov was a wonderful writer and was brilliant at picking up on the ebbs and flows of people’s lives. Bits are utterly tragic and also weirdly comic, so by playing the situation for the reality, the comedy comes out naturally.

Audience Member: It’s also there in the kissing scene.

Vanessa: The ‘sex rolls,’ as our fight director called them! In one of the rehearsals, someone was watching who found it really disturbing and really dark, so when we did that scene in previews and there was lots of laughter, I was so confused.

Hilton: The important thing is that you try and stay in the moment, and try to make it as real as you can. Rob sent us an email of notes which included a reference to Chekhov working with the actress who played Sonya in the original production. Sonya got down on her knees to beg that the professor should show mercy, and Chekhov said, “Don’t do that. It’s just an incident. Don’t show them that you’re begging.”

Jocelyn: “The drama is always internal” is something Chekhov always said. These aren’t big external events, they’re internal changes that happen.

We have our first question from Twitter: Can you explain the song choices in the play?

Richard: Rob was very keen that the music that comes out of the action should be Cartwright’s music; that that’s his take on how the music is in the house. The party scene is set, effectively, now; and when Cartwright and Johnny (Vanya) were teenagers they would love Bowie and Iggy Pop; and those songs came up as part of their youth, something that they would love, that would get them fired up easily, that they can’t stop themselves singing. We actually chose Jean Genie two days before the news of Bowie’s death emerged, and when it did we just wanted to sing Bowie songs for hours and hours.

Tobias suggested that when Michael comes on and says “Play something, play!” that there should be kind of an Arctic Monkeys riff – the doctor’s music rather than Cartwright’s. So those choices came out of the characters and what they would have loved as kids, and the rest of it came out of Cartwright’s head and the kind of things he plays in the house.

Audience Member 3: How did you choose the names, or was it just random?

Tobias: They’re definitely not random. It’s an attempt to make it feel seamless with the world we were creating. Rob made the translation and he was keen not to have the Russian names. He went back to the original Russian and ‘Vanya’ is a nickname, so that’s where ‘Johnny’ comes from, there’s a familiarity with him. He played with the idea of ‘Uncle Vuncle’ for a bit, but I think that would have irritated too many people. It was something that was kind of familial and intimate and he went as close to the Russian as possible when picking the English equivalent.

Vanessa: To have Russian for an English audience would be to make strange what’s completely normal to a Russian audience.

Jessica: Chekhov didn’t do anything by accident with names; they were on purpose in terms of what these names mean. If you could understand Russian, you would understand what the names mean. So Sonya’s mum’s name, when translated, is Faith, and he chose that on purpose because not only have they lost Faith as a person, as a mother, as a daughter, but these people have lost some kind of faith, whether that’s religious or hope in the future or each other.

If you use the Russian names, unless you’ve done weeks of homework before the play, you don’t know that – I would never have known that, I had no idea – and suddenly there it is and you don’t have to know Russian, you can just listen and soak it in.

Tobias: He was playing with the sonic ripples from the different names.

Vanessa: Elena is like Helen of Troy; they’re all symbolic.

Hilton: Rob said that Chekhov wrote for his ‘now’ and therefore we should do it for our ‘now’. That’s his approach.

Audience Member 4: How does playing this every night, and the themes that are coming out, affect your outlook on life?

Richard: We’re all very depressed!

Tobias: It’s a curious bath to be sitting in on a regular basis and eight shows a week is taking its toll. But that’s what you sign up for, and it’s wonderful material to work on, and it’s nourishing in itself. It’s a very bleak story, there’s not a huge amount of redemption in it.

Hilton: I’ve heard people say over the last three hours; “This is my family.” We’re very attached to each other.

Tobias: It’s how we’re getting through, maybe!

Jocelyn: To amalgamate two Twitter questions, for all of you: how as an actor do you create your role? And making it more specific to Tobias, how did you prepare for your role, besides visiting the forest?

Tobias: I start with the words on the page. We come together as a group. Rob set a very particular tone on this production and had a very clear ethos, philosophy, approach to this material. I think it was, in essence, about emotion – he really wanted to fill this room with emotion and the atmosphere between the characters. To make the air thick. That was our central driving search through rehearsal. How do you do that? How, as a group of actors, do you come into a space, how do you make the air thick?

I think when a show works, that’s what we’re managing to do, and I think it is the holy grail of theatre, it’s what theatre can do like no other medium because it’s live. When an audience are excited it’s because they feel that atmosphere and they feel the tensions and the electricity in the room. It’s quite a hard thing to pin down, and I don’t think any one of us can generate it by ourselves.

Richard: As a group, we worked out the history details: so the year each character was born, when they moved, when all the incidents happen that are described in the play but don’t happen within it. These filled the whole wall of the rehearsal room, and now they’re all downstairs in the corridor. As soon as you start digging those up and as soon as you start creating a truthful history, the characters sort of fall into place. I loved seeing that happen.

Hilton: Rob said about the confrontation in Act 3, “It’s not about what Paul and Hilton do, it’s about what everybody else does.” The phrase he uses is “cooking the room.”

Jocelyn: Susie, you used a lot of pictures didn’t you?

Susan: Maria doesn’t say very much. So I had to create a woman who uses silence as a weapon, and who uses silence to talk very loudly. It was extraordinarily rewarding but frightening.

One of the things that was wonderful was that Rob and Jo had this idea that we write letters to each other. You could choose who you wrote to at any point in the story and this became very vivid the more we rehearsed, the more we discovered about the character. Then you would get letters back –  and in this day of computers, to get a letter was so thrilling. Rob has absolutely honoured every single character, and therefore you see a very rich jigsaw of what is occurring in this “cooking” room.

Tobias: The importance of people in the room was genuinely not determined by how many lines they had. When Johnny is declaring his love to Elena at the end of Act 1, Maria’s presence is as important as theirs is; you can feel it radiating.

Vanessa: I originally though it was a love story between Elena and the doctor, but Rob showed me that it wasn’t, which was an amazing discovery. Also, the idea of being bored and what that actually means. I heard from Russian people, that to be bored in Russia is seriously frustrating and there’s an anger behind it, there’s a restlessness. I really loved Elena; I loved her straight away, I loved the length of time it took to find who she was and why she got married if it made her unhappy. She’s looking for an escape route I think. And there’s this new thing in the house and you can see that something tectonic is going on with her. She hadn’t realised she was unhappy, but she was.

And because the writing is so good, so much of what you say is indirect, it’s all unspoken, you’re saying one thing but it means five other things and you need time to work it out, to really uncover it.

Audience Member 5: I was thinking about space, because I was flitting between the Russian landscape because of the isolation and somewhere just beyond the home counties, so when you were rehearsing, what was the geography you were thinking of?

Hilton: We never made it site-specific; it’s just that there is no broadband signal.

Tobias: I was thinking somewhere up north where it is a bit more isolated, but certainly not the sort of geography of Russia. I think maybe we were thinking that the distances between people were emotional rather than geographical.

Richard: I think we all had our own images, which made it real. Mine was of the Peak District, where I’m from and this world could exist in that place for me. But it could be Scotland, it could be Lincolnshire, parts of Kent – as long as we believed that these events happened in that place then it was fine.

Vanessa: I think there’s something psychologically keeping them in the house, not just the distance. It’s the same as when the women in Three Sisters go, “I want to go to Moscow” but they never go. There’s a reason Elena hasn’t left her marriage, and there’s a reason Sonya hasn’t left Uncle Johnny. So for me, things were less relevant spatially, and it became more about a feeling of suffocation and an inability to leave. I’m sure we’ve all been there: when we’re tied to something unhealthy and we have an inability to break out.


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