This was one of my favorite papers in college. In it I had to compare and contrast three stage productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and then I discussed my adaptation ideas. Naturally, I wrote of attempting a cinematic portrayal. Enjoy!
Visions of Vanya
When a director takes on the job of reviving a play he or she has the unenviable task of breathing new life into the piece. It would be quite easy to go on staging the same play in an identical manner as it was first performed. This practice is not unheard of but it is both boring and lacking in artistic vision.
When dealing with a play like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which has many timeless and universal qualities, an adaptation of some kind is almost a necessity. This is so as Chekhov’s work has different meanings to various different cultures.
The first interpretation of Uncle Vanya that caught my attention was a 1997 version of the play performed at Stanford Summer Theatre. Jarek Truszcynski, who formerly worked at the Polish National Theatre, did any unusual thing in that he got both local and foreign actors with varying backgrounds in both theatre and film. This blending of styles and backgrounds, while no doubt unique, must’ve lead to some inconsistency from one performance to another. The most interesting thing about this adaptation is what was done with the stage.
Drawing on Chekhov’s poignant humor and tragicomic vision, director Truszcynski designed an intriguing set based on a series of doors and windows to highlight the failed connections that inform the life of Chekhov’s wonderful, if troubled characters. In a similar vein, live piano (Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, 4 hands) was woven into the action, underscoring the erotic desires and mismatches that fuel the play.
While I have no photographs of this set, one who looks upon it will undoubtedly know that the set was designed that way to say something about the play itself. This would be further underlined if the actors used these doors and windows to their advantage. The use of music is something that I have considered when reading this play and it is an effective way to communicate to the audience something that may be, in fact, contrary to the words spoken or, as a last resort, to emphasize the emotional impact of the scene.
The next version of Chekov’s play that I found interesting was directed by Libby Appel at the 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What Shakespeare and Chekhov have in common I’ll never know. The way the set was constructed in this play reflects the most negative possible interpretation of the text.
“The stifling set has a black backdrop, with four bare walls on both side [sic] and a maze of doors. There are plain chairs, a table, and a piano which emanates original music reminiscent of some of the more gloomy music of Rachmaninoff.”
We see some similar elements between this and Truszcynski’s version of the play. Here have a dark backdrop and every possible place where color could be added it’s plain. We find a similarity in the amount of doors. The doors on the set may not mean as much in this version. This is a play with quite a few sets and instead of having the actors constantly exit the director may want to have the actors simply move to a different part of the stage. Yet the doors here do seem to imply that all these characters are connected in that they’re unhappy with the life they’ve had to lead. The amount of black coupled with that fact make this the darkest version of this play possible. Any comedic element the play may contain has been removed.
The last and probably most intriguing version is that of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. This is a company founded by Gary Sinise, best known for his portrayal of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, and some of his friends formed just after he got out of high school. It is now a big company and many other renowned actors have performed plays with them.
It’s Steppenwolf it seems that comes closest to striking the delicate balance between tragedy and comedy in this play.
“Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya can be played with bitterness and despair, or it can be played with a reminder of hope. Steppenwolf’s production chooses the latter. In the end, a certain equilibrium is restored – moody, perhaps, but with the smallest promise of realization and real change. What we come away with is hope not so much for Vanya and company, but for ourselves.”
Staging and the way the actors interpret their roles has a lot to do with its tone. Music may be helpful but it is only a necessity if the actors are not doing their jobs properly.
“Austin Pendleton (Vanya) and Jeff Perry (Astrov) play well against one another as the dogged, summer-love-sick estate-manager and the active environmentally-minded doctor; they are fittingly matched as complementary forces, friends as well as rivals, different yet reciprocal natures. Pendleton brings to Vanya a contemporary, Woody Allen angst and some rather appealing lickerish looks, as well as the capacity for desperation that moves us as he comes face to face with the falseness of his idols and the sterility of his life, a long road of untaken opportunities. Jeff Perry as Astrov moves with facility between comic and compelling, presenting a magnetic , engaging, human portrayal of the doctor, equally vulnerable to the beauty of saplings and Yelena’s charms.”
If this is the kind of response actors are eliciting then they are most definitely doing an amazing job. In reading the text one can easily see how it can be taken to either extreme. It is better to try and achieve some sort of balance between comedy and tragedy and lean more towards one side.
Ultimately a play as well-written as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is one where the director has a lot of flexibility. Every decision that is made from lighting to set designate casting will influence the way the play is perceived and it is very interesting to see the ways in which, each of these directors have attempted to express their views of what this work is trying to say.
My Own Interpretation
Uncle Vanya is a hard play to adapt regardless of the medium one plans on performing it in. The play is a chameleon because if you read it while you’re in a bad mood you’ll see it as another play that proclaims life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yet in that same vein the ending packs a wallop and is an incredible surprise proclaiming that this play is one about hope. Someone who is content with their life may read this as sort of a screwball comedy with tragically flawed and depressed characters.
I admit I’ve had both views of this material. However, I think that to play these roles in an overly dramatic way would demean Chekhov’s intent and his dialogue. The director should seek to strike a balance. And here’s where I see there can be a compromise, when a character is discussing about what they believe about someone else such as the discussions of Professor Sereoryakov at the beginning, the actors should go for the most comedic impact he or she can find without turning the play into a farce. When they discuss their own problems, they should be serious and seek out honest and emotional interpretation without being hammy. Both things are asking a lot of the actors, but this is demanding material.
Before even considering adapting it into a screenplay, I believe the lighting scheme should be considered. When one is dealing with the medium of film they have an advantage over people in theatre because natural light can be used to light the scenes and would be considerably more effective than any means of artificial lighting. While the use of both candlelight and sunlight would be very difficult, it would lend a great amount of atmosphere that couldn’t be accomplished on stage. I believe candlelight would be most beneficial during the scene where Elena and Sonya make amends and discuss their desires.
If I were adapting this as a film, more sets would be required than are in the original play. Basically, what we have here, while well written, are characters who talk too much to make for interesting cinema. As a matter of fact, when Chekhov first premiered the play theater-goers of the day were surprised at how much the characters spoke. Talking heads syndrome is something that is avoided at all costs in film.
While it would take many readings to decide where to actually cut dialogue, merely looking over the text after one reading we can see places where images from outside the Serebryakov estate would be helpful in making this play more cinematic.
First, I believe the use of flashbacks accompanied by voice over narration would assist many scenes in this piece. It would also be helpful in breaking up the long periods of dialogue. This tactic would be most effective in the following scenes:
- When Dr. Astrov discusses the patient he lost.
- Marina talking about the professor’s daily activities.
- Sonya pontificating about people in foreign climates.
- Vanya reminiscing about a girl he knew.
- At the very end when Sonya is consoling Vanya some sort of imagery would be necessary.
While the closing speech is riveting it would be easy for an actor to go overboard with these lines.
I also feel that the strategic insertion of cutaways during breaks in dialogue or just after something is said would be beneficial and break up a play with a lot of talking. I believe this technique can be most helpful following the following pieces of dialogue:
- Astrov’s comment about his mustache.
- When Vanya says he’s haunted at night.
- Vanya’s comments on an autumn rose
- What might be going through Astrov’s mind while he’s making a pass at Elena
- Serebryakov’s comments about the house being a labyrinth.
- Vanya waking after comments about a waking life.
All of the prior images would almost mirror what was said in dialogue previously but some images would also be needed to demonstrate meaning such as:
- When Vanya discusses the work of the professor not living.
- A single page burning.
- When Astrov complains about provincial life we move outside the estate momentarily.
- When Elena makes the cynical comments about her real behavior she may look out the window and see fictitious characters demonstrating the very qualities she finds unrealistic yet longs to see.
In film the camera can also be used to heighten emotion and through the creative use of angles we may add some insight into the character’s emotions. On page 177 Vanya goes on a rant about the professor and I feel a gradual procession of tightening shots as his fury increases would definitely help drive home that the professor’s lifestyle is resented by these people. When Elena says there are demons in all of them I believe the best approach would be a medium shot in which Elena is in the center of the image with the back of the protagonists in the foreground. This is so the comment does not come off as judgmental or like preaching to the viewers. At the top of page 195 when Vanya speaks of illusions I feel it would best to see Vanya speaking from the lower right-hand corner of the screen. This show reflects the cinematic Russian tradition that states placing a character in the lower right-hand portion makes them appear weak. I also feel that alternating between single and wide angle shots during the shootout would be beneficial. It would be helpful to show both the entire room and how others are reacting to the situation and also to demonstrate Serebryakov’s fear and Vanya’s anger.
In the review of the Steppenwolf Theater Company production it states that their performance of the play was two-and-a-half hours long. This would be quite a long film and not many people would be willing to go for a film of this type that’s that long anymore. However, I feel that if one were to continue in this melange of styles and techniques both old and new it would become a more visually involving piece than many would expect.