Simon Stephens about his love to Anton Chekhov and working on Vanya

Author Yulia Savikovskaya
Category Columnists, Culture, Lifestyle, People, Town
Date February 12 2024
Reading Time 22 min.

Simon Stephens about his love to Anton Chekhov and working on Vanya

The interview with British playwright Simon Stephens took place in February 2024 just before the National Theatre Live broadcast of Vanya, the production of Sam Yates starring Andrew Scott. The new version of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya was written by Simon Stephens, and it is his third translation of Chekhov’s plays, the two first being The Cherry Orchard for theatre director Katie Mitchell and The Seagull for Sean Holmes (Lyric Theatre). Simon Stephens is a famous British playwright, an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith (London), the author of Punk Rock (2009), Harper Regan (2007), Motortown (2006), Morning Sun (2021),
Blindness (2020, adaptation of José Saramago’s novel) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012, adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel) that had been running successfully in London and New York. Simon has also written British versions of classical plays by Chekhov, Ibsen and Brecht. Simon is a presenter of the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast where he met 40 different playwrights.

Simon, the first question would be the following one. You always say in your interviews that Chekhov is your favourite playwright, but I guess this process of finding that he is wasn’t straightforward, and I wondered how you came to this love of Chekhov, and through which steps did you realise that he was your favourite playwright?

I think he’s not just my favourite playwright, I think he’s my favourite writer in any form. I think the stories are as amazing as the plays, and the letters are really good as well, which is a bit unreasonable, the fact that my favourite playwright should also be my favourite prose writer, and should also be my favourite letter writer. It’s kind of, it’s just a bit unfair. I first came across him through the American poet Raymond Carver, who was a poet I read in my 20s. When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a poet more than I wanted to be a playwright, and Carver was a big influence on me. I think I came across Carver through the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, and when I read Carver, I read his remarkable last anthology of poems and stories called A New Path to the Waterfall. And in A New Path to the Waterfall, which is a collection that he made, having been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he punctuated his own poems and his own stories with excerpts from other writers. Czeslaw Milosz was one, for sure, and also William Carlos Williams. But as well as other poems by other poets, there would be excerpts of Chekhov stories that he framed in a poetic form, and I’d never read Chekhov before that time. And there was a stillness and a clarity and a truthfulness to those little fragments in the Carver book that captivated me. Around about the same time, I think I saw Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street, which is Andre Gregory’s production of Uncle Vanya. It’s a really extraordinary film, and a big influence on our Vanya, in that, you know, it’s just set in an old cinema on 42nd Street off Times Square in New York. And you watch all these actors just arrive from the subway or from the taxis, going to this derelict theatre, take their coats off, sit down at the rehearsal room table and just kind of start performing Vanya. It’s a ritual they did, I gather, every day for a year. The same actors would just come and do Uncle Vanya at lunchtime then go about their day. And the tension between the extreme naturalism of their behaviour and the way they slid into I think it was David Mamet’s first version of the play and then kind of slid back out again and went about their liveI found it extraordinary. This capacity for a play to look so fearlessly into the heart of the pathos and the tragedy and the silliness and the comedy of human behaviour. And then just dissolve again into le quotidien, everyday human life. The capacity to see that all lives carry this grief and this silliness, this pathos and tragedy and folly. Like all of us carry all of those contradictions. It was the capacity to see the contradictions that I found most compelling. And from then I just started looking for Chekhov stories and Chekhov’s plays. And I bought all of the stories and read all of them hungrily when I was about 26-27 years old. And the stories were, I think, a bigger influence on me than the plays. When I was just in my early writing, before I’d written Bluebird, before I’d written Christmas, before I’d written anything, I just read these stories constantly. And then I had a book of the plays translated by the American downtown playwright, Jean-Claude van Italie, who was a part of the East Village scene in the 60s and 70s, a peer of Sam Shepard. And he wrote a really good translation of all four of the plays. And I got hold of that and just read all of them hungrily and became really obsessed with it. I was living in the East End of London in 1997. I was working as a schoolteacher. I was training to be a schoolteacher. I was working in a wine shop to pay for my training. I was selling bottles of wine in a very quiet wine shop where nobody came in. And between selling wines I just read Cherry Orchard fifteen times, as I couldn’t understand why it compelled me and how it worked. The drama in it is entirely between the lines, the things that characters don’t say to one another that are entirely devastating. And as somebody who had not made a great deal of theatre, who was just a novice, I really wanted to figure out how he did it. I wanted to keep reading his play but there were no kind of big speeches or accusations, there were no dramatic confrontations in that play, there’s no fight scene, the great declaration of love is entirely unspoken – when Lopakhin fails to propose to Varya. II think there’s something about reading that play in the East End of London in the 1990s that really resonated with me because it struck me that this was a play about a culture of people that had been rendered redundant, completely out with their understanding and their control, they didn’t know what had happened to them and they didn’t understand why what was happening to them was happening to them. And that strongly reminded me of the working class in the East End of London in the 90s. In the 90s the East End was gentrified at a quite remarkable rate, and families who’d lived in the East End of London for a hundred years were finding themselves entirely priced out of this part of the city. The great focal point of working class life in England is the pub. And all these pubs around me where I was living were just closing down because people weren’t going there anymore, because the people who would go there weren’t living there anymore. And you go to those pubs now and they’re all kind of very bourgeois, like you get really nice food and a lovely glass of organic wine, and y lovely cocktails and magnificently cooked lunches, but there’s no working class people sitting and having a beer after work, that kind of cultural moment has entirely disappeared. And I thought there were relationships between the world of the Cherry Orchard and the world I was living in. And I conceived and wrote a play which eventually became the play Christmas which although it was produced sometime after Herons was actually my first commission for the Royal Court and in which I took that structure of the Cherry Orchard and tried to kind of apply it to the working class of the East End. The Royal Court rejected the commission but the play eventually was produced at the Bush Theatre a few years later, a production that I think I’m really happy with. But that was my attempt to make sense of Chekhov’s dramatic structures in my own world of language. That’s a very lengthy answer to your question.

You have translated three of Chekhov’s plays so far. Since then have you kept in mind the idea of doing your own translations or they came as unexpected commissions when you were having your career? Have you had a brewing thing in your mind that at some point of my career I should make translations of Chekhov?

It was a bit of both. I don’t think I could underestimate how important to me that Jean-Claude Van Italie translation book was. All four of the plays were translated by the same writer. And I’ve returned to it again and again. I’ve still got it, and it’s battered. You know, it’s kind of one of those books where the spine’s broken and the pages are falling off. You can see my notes and the bits I’ve underlined and circled. It was a really fundamental book for me. Not just for Christmas, but for my writing subsequently. And I think as a consequence I’d always had a private wish that I would do my own version of that book, that one day I would have a book, which would be my versions of all four of the plays. I could say to my agent, I want to do some Chekhov, but didn’t know how to go about getting a job of writing a version. There is this special thing in Britain of writing Chekhov’s plays versions. To contextualise that whole cultural particularity is probably worth doing. I don’t speak Russian. I don’t speak German. I’ve translated plays that are originally written in German. You know, I don’t speak the particular idiomatic dialect of Norwegian that Ibsen wrote in, the one that blurred between conversational Norwegian and a form of Danish. You know, I’ve written versions of plays written in many different languages that I don’t speak the original language of. In British theatre there tends to be… a broad fashion of doing it. The culture of producing plays that were originally written in second languages, translated initially by academics into what is described in English academia as either most commonly a literal, or maybe more particularly an accurate translation, in which the job of the academic is not to render the language actable at all, not to render those sentences speakable or live, or give them any kind of vitality on stage, but to just translate them word for word. And different academics have different approaches to this, and that can result in different literal or accurate versions that have different positions over the spectrum of actability. And this partly can be a result of the differences in language between the source language and English. So the literal translations that are made of Ibsen’s plays are pretty close to speakable English. The literal translation of Jon Fosse’s I Am the Wind was really close. It was the first time I did a version, and it was very close to speakable English. The German translations are very different, and if you tried to speak, if you went on stage as an actor, and said the words that are written in the literal versions, you’d entirely alienate and baffle an English audience, because people have never spoken like that. And that whole question of ‘is the character speaking in a way that’s recognisable to the audience as being that, akin to a human’, which is shorthand for naturalism, that seems such a fundamental kind of element of British theatre. The idea of having a character coming on stage and not speaking like how people speak, it’s either Shakespeare, or it’s old-fashioned, or it’s odd, or it’s wrong, or it’s not being done very well. The job then of the version writer, and I’ve got this kind of insistent vocabulary, where I would distinguish between writing a version and writing an adaptation, that an adaptation is something like Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime, or Blindness, or The Shining, where it comes from another form and is adapted for the stage. But what I think I do when I’m writing Chekhov, or Brecht, or Max Frisch, is I’m writing a version, I’m working from a literal translation, I’m going through the literal translation, and I just try and imagine how that could be spoken by a living actor in 2023 on stage now. My approach to the different Chekhov ones varied. The first one I was asked to do, I actually turned it down because I was too scared of it. So when we were making Wastwater in 2011, Katie Mitchell asked me if I’d write a version of The Cherry Orchard, and I just didn’t feel as though I was good enough. And I don’t know why I changed my mind about that, but I did (laughing). Just working with Katie a couple times after Wastwater, I went to her and I said… and I’d done A Doll’s House at that stage and that had worked, I’d done I Am The Wind and that had worked… and so I went to Katie and I said I think I could do The Cherry Orchard for you. So we went to David Lan who was then the Artistic Director of the Young Vic Theatre, and we pitched this idea of me writing a version of The Cherry Orchard for Katie to direct, and he commissioned it. For me The Cherry Orchard it’s almost like a sacred text, so I approached it with profound caution. I read as many of the stories as I could reread. I read different versions of all of the plays written by different writers, Martin Crimps’ The Seagull, Tom Stoppard’s Ivanov and Platonov, Christopher Hampton’s Vanya, just to get myself into character, to get myself in the zone for doing The Cherry Orchard. And then the approach is incredibly simple. I reread biographies of Chekhov. Actually the letters and the sources around Chekhov’s thinking at the time of writing any of his plays are quite slim. He wasn’t a lengthy literary diarist. When he wrote letters about the plays they tended to be either complaints about the production or comments on his illness. It is quite interesting, but not tremendously useful when it comes to translating things.

My approach to all my writing tends to be that of a project manager. I set myself very strict and very rigid deadlines about the work that I need to do in any given two-year period or year-long period, and then I work backwards from the delivery dates of the work that I need to do, to estimate how long it’s going to take me to write a play, to deliver it on time. And then having decided how long it’s going to take me, I’ll decide the starting point of the play, and then I’ll figure out how much work I need to do before I start in order to start writing it. I would have done that with Cherry Orchard, and I would have decided I’m going to read all the plays, I’m going to read all the stories, I’m going to read all the letters, I’m going to read the biographies. That’s probably going to take me about two months in total. So two months of preparation, and then the literal translation was 80 pages long. 80 pages divided very happily by four, and it is four acts, the Chekhov structure tends to a degree to fall mathematically in this way. Act one tends to be around 18-19 pages in the English literal translation, Act two about 18-19 pages, Act three about 18-19 pages, Act four, normally about 13-16 pages. I just decided that I’m going to do one act a week. And if I’m going to do one act a week, and they’re 18 pages long, I’ve got five working days, that means I’ve got to do four pages a day. It’s very, very mathematical and functional. If I’m going to deliver, I need to do four pages a day. And I will just copy and paste Act one from the literal onto a new document and I’ll just go through it and rewrite it in a way that’s more actable until I’ve done three pages, and then I’ve done it for the day, and I’ll make sure I do the act in a week. And when I’ve done Act one in a week, that’s the job done. I can move on to the next act next week. And that actually has been my approach to all of the plays. It was the same with Vanya. It was the same with The Seagull. The differences of the resulting versions tend to be defined by the differences between the director’s approaches that I’m writing for, and the approaches of the theatre’s. Katie Mitchell is a great artist, and I’m very fond of her. She has a very particular aesthetic which could be defined as being the aesthetic of what she would call naturalism. When we did Wastwater together, she asked me to rewrite the first scene in that, so that it was set inside. Because if she has a hatred of anything, it seems to be something that is set outside. And if you look at all of her Chekhov productions, she moves them all to one room. It was her idea with The Cherry Orchard to move it to the nursery. I would say it’s important for Chekhov. It’s a little pompous to say it’s important for him. I don’t know what was important to him. But the sound of his letters, what was important to him was his illness and Olga Knipper. You know, everything else was just the kind of job. But there seems to have been a reason for which he made one scene in a nursery, one scene then outside in the garden, then one scene in the ballroom, and then one scene in a hallway. And I think he wants to look at humanity as it is refracted by different contexts. But given the case, Katie will never direct the scene outside. Given that she would never allow the scene to be set in the garden, it led to a rather metaphorical and beautiful decision to set every scene in the nursery. It was Katie’s decision, and because I respect and admire her, I refined the version so that it was all set in the nursery. Unlike Carrie Cracknell who had directed A Doll’s House, Katie has a real aversion to lengthy speeches, so she was encouraging me to fracture some of those speeches in dialogue. I was really proud of that Cherry Orchard, the work that we did, I really loved working on the character of Charlotta Ivanovna. She was the epitome of feminism there, we invented a new bit for her – when Lopakhin and Peter are talking about morality and politics, she just walks completely naked from the middle of the scene, and says ‘There is theory, gentlemen, and then there is practice’. I really love that gesture, crossing all that patriarchy. I really celebrate Katie’s impulse to do that with Charlotta. And when I look at Chekhov’s plays, they are so full of sex, so that to render any character sexless seems a shame. Even the characters in their 80s have a vitality to them that may linger, and not to embrace that seems a pity.

Your other translation, The Seagull, could you talk about that?

The Seagull was my second work. What was the starting point of that? There’s an English director based in Uruguay who’s directed a few more plays, and he’s an old friend of Sean Holmes called Anthony Fletcher. And I’ve been to the theatre with Anthony to see something at the National Theatre. And we were sitting outside that bar in front of the National Theatre. It was a summer evening. And we’re just having a beer after watching a play. And we’re rhapsodising about the actor Lesley Sharp, who’s an English Manchester-born actress who was the original Harper in Harper Regan. She is an actor of extraordinary intelligence and wit and anger and passion, volatility, compassion. We were just talking about how brilliant she was. And then I remember talking with Anthony and saying it would be really great to see her do some Chekhov. It would be great to see a younger actor play Arkadina. it’s removing the sexuality of Chekhov. Kind of having these figures who are kind of definitely museum pieces and have unnecessary dresses which define a period piece. The starting point of my Seagull… and my starting points are always kind of instinctive rather than academic, and I normally come from a position of childlike ignorance… but I just wanted to see Lesley Sharp play Arkadina. And I wrote to Sean and said, how about we do the Seagull with Lesley Sharp? And he got very excited about that. We wrote to Leslie and she got very excited about that. And so we built the whole concept around her. And what was really interestingly different between Katie, who I really respect and Sean, who I really respect, is at the time, which was like 2017, Sean was really reeling in the aftermath of Sebastian Nübling’s production of Three Kingdoms that he had produced at the Lyric Hammersmith and which had this kind of combustible impact on British theatre. It raised questions about what the function of the actor is on the stage, and what the function of naturalism is on stage. You know, there’s nothing new in theatre. That’s the joy of it. The great liberation of it as an art form is that every idea you think is radical or exciting or new has definitely already been done. And it has normally been done by Shakespeare. And it’s no coincidence to me that Sean Holmes has gone on to be an associate Artistic Director at The Globe. I think he makes really great Shakespearean productions. But the experiments that he was engaging with after Three Kingdoms and his interrogation of the work that he’d done to date, which up to that point would be much more naturalistic, much more indebted to somebody like Katie. The job of the director would be to stage the play as imagined by the playwright. Three Kingdoms comes along, blows his mind. It’s clearly a kind of revolutionary, small kind of revolutionary moment in British theatre. It was a moment when all the critics hated Three Kingdoms, and then all the young audiences really loved it. And the Lyric Theatre became a focal point of dissidence and reinvention of European theatre within London. And he got really energised by that.

Well, Katie’s Cherry Orchard had a real stillness and a purity of naturalism to it. It had dialogue which really interweaved in a way which is much more conversational, and every scene was set inside. Being inside in a theatre, you can believe that we’re looking at something that is real life. If you’re in a theatre and you’re watching the scene set outside, you no longer believe that you’re watching real life. And that was something that Katie recoiled against.

Sean was really, really into something very different. He was really interested in direct audience addresses in The Seagull. He was really interested in the moment in which the blurring between character and actor was articulated in the way that Newbling had done in Three Kingdoms. He had so many speeches spoken out to the audience. His production was really playful and volatile, and I really loved it. My writing of it was really different. I felt much less reverential. Basically, what I mean by that is that I didn’t do any of the research. I didn’t read the letters. I didn’t read the stories. I didn’t go back to other versions. I just sat with the literal translation. It was just like, right, let’s really make this as energetic and alive and vital as we can. Let’s make every line speakable and kinetic and alert. With all of the versions that I’ve done of all of the plays, not just the Chekhov, my literary talent is that I try and not use the words that could only be spoken in either the year when the play was written, the 1890s or the 1900s, or the year of the production. So if you look at Anne Rice’s version of The Seagull that Jamie Lloyd directed it was peppered with references to Range Rovers and iPads. And I wasn’t interested in doing that at all. But nor was I interested in references to things that nobody would refer to in the 2010s, that would establish this absolutely as being set in the past. So you have a language which probably nobody’s ever spoken, which ideally kind of resonates to both timescales, which could be spoken in 2023- 2024, if I was to write it now, but hopefully theoretically could be spoken in 1904 as well and wasn’t so modern that it would completely alienate the audience that Chekhov was writing for.

Chekhov wasn’t writing for museums. He wasn’t writing for the academy. He wasn’t writing for universities. He wasn’t writing for the scholars of translation, with great respect to scholars of translation. He was writing for audiences. He was writing for the people. He was writing about life. He was writing about people who were broke, people who’d lost all their money. And there’s a huge amount of people who can relate to that now, as we’ve kind of tipped our way through this terrifying decade. He was writing about people who were really horny and were really drunk and were really violent and wanted to fight. And he was writing about their folly and their grief and their despair and their grace and gentleness. And with The Seagull, much more than The Cherry Orchard, I think I really just went to that space. There are actually moments when the characters do talk to the audience in the original Russian version. Sean made a different choice. I don’t think he would say it was Brechtian. I don’t think he would say Brecht was a big influence on that decision. He’s directed Brecht before. I think he would say that there were three things which were a big influence on that decision for him. One was Nübling’s Three Kingdoms. Another was the success of the pantomimes at Lyric Hammersmith. These are Christmas shows performed in theatres all throughout the country which are fundamentally versions of either the Tales of the Brothers Grimm or the Tales of the Arabian Nights but done with unapologetic low budget raucousness. There is absolutely chaotic anarchy in the best of these shows. And they’re full of jokes about those local communities. And about contemporary politics. And they’re full of pop songs, rewritten pop songs. And they give sweets to all the children. And they make dirty jokes that only the parents understand and the kids don’t understand at all. But at the best, they’re really filthy jokes.

And so Sean Holmes used these dramaturgical interventions. Actors come out of character. Actors talk to the audience. The absolute celebration of being a character. Being in the same room as the audience is central. When Katie was making The Cherry Orchard, she talked about the audience as being the people in the same room who we share our work with. And she would be frustrated with the audience when they laughed, because it would corrupt the purity of the audience, of the actor’s intention. The actor would be aware of the laughter and so it would dilute the purity of their intention. Sean was really about ‘we are in the same room together’. That came from Nübling, it came from pantomime, and it came from Shakespeare. He directed two really successful Shakespeare productions, a production of Twelfth Night and a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream with the theatre company Filterl. The comedy and anarchy and mess of those productions were really galvanising. And I think he tried to bring all three of those things into The Seagull. And I was really excited by all of those things. I didn’t change the text in the rehearsal, I would just sometimes take speeches and say, just say that to the audience without changing the text, a word of the text.

Could you speak about your third Chekhov translation, Vanya, that is about to be screened worldwide?

Sam Yates directed that, and it was his idea to do Vanya. His original concept of Vanya was radically different to the concept that we actually ended with. He came to me to write a version of Vanya for him that he would maybe produce at the Manchester International Festival. He wanted a huge budget and the use of high-tech art. He had an idea originally of using technology so that when characters were off stage, the production company would commission different writers to write the interior monologue of the characters as they were off stage, and the audience could tune in with headphones to what the other characters were thinking while they were off stage. That was an original idea. He was really excited by fully realising the off-stage world of every character. And he asked me to write a draft of the play in which I thought about what the characters were doing when they were off stage. And I had great fun doing that. I loved working with Sam. I found it really, really energising. I wrote and he said, don’t cut anything. People cut too much in Chekhov. He said, write every word. Really, really, let’s make it long and let’s make it detailed and full. He had the idea of Alexander Serebryakov being a film director rather than an academic. The notion of the concerns of an academic could alienate the contemporary audience. Who really gives a shit about what mess a professor is going through? But all of us want to be movie directors. So the idea of a failed artist at the end of his life. I think that came from Sam. I think that’s a really brilliant idea. So I wrote that version. We were quite excited by it. We were talking about casting it. We’d both worked with Andrew before. And we both probably share the opinion that he’s the best actor in the world. And I think he probably is the best actor in the world at the moment. I think he’s extraordinary, the work he’s doing at the moment. We sent it to him to see if he’d read for Vanya. And he replied and he came in to meet us. In my memory, the three of us, me and Sam and Andrew, were sat around a table in the rehearsal room in South London. And we just wanted to read the whole play together. So what we did was, we just took it in turns to read different characters. And we just went round the table. So whoever was speaking next, we passed it on. And read it in a kind of triangle shape. You know, it won’t surprise you that fairly quickly we realised that we weren’t as good at reading as Andrew was. But that was alright. The objective of the day wasn’t to stage a production, but it was to engage Andrew in conversation. In my memory, he started that day asking the question, as a joke – ‘how are we going to read this, boys? I’m not going to read every line’. Right? And he was doing that as a joke. But sometimes jokes are very telling, right, about what people are really thinking, there’s an element of that. Sam had the idea, as we read it, that Andrew should read all of Vanya’s lines. So that would interrupt the triangle. It’d go Sam, Simon, Andrew, Sam, Simon, Andrew, Sam, Simon, Andrew. Hold on. The next line’s Vanya’s. So Andrew, Andrew. And so we had the experience of Andrew occasionally reading two lines of dialogue next to one another. Let’s imagine a scene in which there’s Alexander, there’s Helena, there’s Sonia, and there’s Vanya, and there’s Michael Astrov. He’d go Andrew, Sam, Simon, Andrew, Sam, Simon. He reads Michael, he reads Sonia, he reads Helena. But he’s got a Vanya line, so then he has to break the triangle. He has to do that as well. So accidentally he would go Helena, he’d read Helena, and then Vanya. He’d queue himself up. And then we watch him do that. And it would be amazing. Just a discovery in the room. It would be really amazing. This coincided, I think, with Sam’s increasing interest in what happens when you distil theatre to just one or two performers. An investigation that had gone on in his work for the last couple of years. He did an amazing production of Tennessee Williams’ two-character play. He did the staging of a dramatic poem with Stanley Townsend. So not just was it just a kind of brilliant thing to watch, it accorded with a lot of his interests at that time. And it was, I think, in my memory, Andrew left a room for a second. And then me and Sam were left in the room and saying, it’s very good when he just reads everything. Should we try? Should we see what happens if he reads everything? And he came back and we just said, do you want to try just reading every line for a bit and see what happens? And, you know, the producers who had agreed to produce a massive, high-tech, high-end, expensive, fully cast production of Uncle Vanya then had a phone call from Sam saying, you know, we think we might want to do it with one actor. Anyway, that was how that came about. It came about as a kind of a beautiful accident that happened. That was a kind of experience that resonated deeply with the investigations that we’re all making in our work. I don’t think I’ve made better theatre than Vanya. I don’t think I’ve made anything better than that. It brings together three elements of my work in one production in a way that really moved me. Chekhov. An investigation of naturalism in theatre. Raising questions about what is naturalism, combined with a fascination with a rehearsal room aesthetic. I fucking love the rehearsal room. I kind of hate the naturalism of a lot of British set designs up to about 2010. I think that perception that you’re talking about in British theatres is a little dated. I don’t think it’s fair to people like Rob Icke, for example, or, you know, people like Rebecca Frecknall. And I think Sam Yates is much more of the generation of Rebecca Frecknall and Rob Icke, who are really quite bold and inventive and dynamic with what they’re doing theatrically. Sean is older than they are, but was at the vanguard of that investigation. Joel Gibbons as well. There’s a whole load of directors in their 30s and 20s who are much bolder than they might be perceived as being. And I think Vanya brought that to the stage as well. As well as Andrew. I think Andrew is an actor I’ve returned to in my imagination. Every play that I write, I think I imagine Andrew speaking. So to synthesise Andrew, Chekhov and that interrogation of what naturalism is in one production was really, really exciting.

And in writing a new one for Andrew, did you just cut out pieces from the previous version for Sam Yates that you did or did you decide ‘I’m writing a new one because I know it’s going to be a one-man show’?

No, I’m really lazy. So I definitely cut from the original one. I didn’t start again at the beginning. I didn’t do it. I definitely had the document in front of me and just went through and just edited, edited, edited. You know, going back from Sam’s original note, which is, you know, ‘I’m going to include every line’. The process became one of just cut and clarify, cut and clarify, cut and clarify. We were really excited. We worked with Andrew for a year before we started rehearsals. Meeting every two or three months and defining things like the aesthetic and, you know. The decision to set it in Ireland as well and really own Andrew’s Irishness came from those meetings. So whenever anything that really became an obstacle to that decision came up, I needed to refine that. But I’d refine it by editing, by cutting and clarifying, cutting and clarifying, and then putting jokes in as much as possible.

Simon Stephens about his love to Anton Chekhov and working on Vanya | London Cult.

And you kept the original thinking of ‘do we hear the thinking of characters in his performance’? This off-stage thing.

No, that was dropped really quickly. I don’t think that was ever going to work. I was uncertain about that idea right from the start. But I think what you do, the ghost of that is present. The ghost of that idea is present somewhere in the production. I think one of the things that we talked… It’s weird on that first day, the first conversation with Andrew, one of the things that we talked about was that in Britain there’s no ensemble culture like there is in Germany or Russia maybe. The advantage of an ensemble culture means that comparatively small peripheral characters in the constellation of a play like Vanya can be played by really significant actors. Because we don’t have that in Britain, because we’re freelance actors, it’s harder to get really great actors to play the housekeepers and the more peripheral characters in a constellation. And that was really central to the idea of having hearing the interior voice, and it was really central to Andrew’s first reading of the play, where he really loved reading the smaller characters. Who’s the lead in Vanya? Sonia probably? Maybe Astrov, who we called Michael, maybe Vanya? But it’s absolutely a constellation of characters more than it’s like the star vehicle. So much of British theatre now is built around star casting. The consequence of the governmental cuts which continue in the arts in the UK means that the more interesting work has to be done in commercial theatre. Because nobody’s got any money in the state-subsidised theatre, and those state-subsidised theatres that do have money are engaged in a political reinvestigation about whose stories are able to be told and who should be able to tell them. I get that, I really understand that, and I think that’s fundamental. As a consequence though, the most interesting space for me to make work which is radical is in commercial theatre. The only way you can do that is if you cast a star. The advantage sometimes is that the best of our stars are stars because they are excellent at their work. Andrew is a star because he is the best actor in the world. He is funny, he is charming, he is cute, he is handsome and all that, but he is brilliant. I was able with Vanya to create a space where we could be reinventing sexuality – with a man playing women – with Helena not just being a beautiful woman damaged because she is beautiful. So all those remarks about the ugliness and beauty of the characters in the play – the pun was that it was the same face, Andrew Scott’s face. It becomes the provocation, because he says ‘I am really ordinary’ (Sonya) or he says ‘You are really beautiful’ (Helena), then it becomes projected by the audiences, the ordinariness and the beauty become part of the audiences’ imagination. That has always been exciting for me, and to bring that together in Vanya was really special.