A love letter to a loaded gun

Hello friends,

This month is a little different than usual: a single love letter to one of the most profoundly brilliant pieces of art I’ve seen this year – perhaps this decade. With the Spring, we usually just follow the flow – collecting little bits of inspiration like a magpie and then finding the threads that hold them all together. This month, this was how the wellspring flowed, and I followed the current.

A few weeks ago, we went to see a new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, filmed by the National Theatre and currently showing in cinemas around the world. Uncle Vanya takes place in one house, out in the countryside, a slightly tumble-down estate managed by Ivan (Vanya) and his niece Sofia (also known as Sonia). When Ivan’s sister dies, her widowed husband chooses a much younger wife – Helena. 

In its classic form, the play is dark yet shimmering, examining our tendency to see life and people as used well or wasted, fortunate or unfortunate. Chekhov at his best is darkly comic, surprising, startlingly sad, expansive – a delicate see-saw that is also the challenge of staging Chekhov. A Swedish friend told me recently: “this is where we [the Swedish] get it wrong – we can’t balance the dark with the light and it ends up a dirge”. 

So let’s get into it. Back to normal programming next month… perhaps.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Chekhov said in a letter to another writer. The concept of “Chekhov’s Gun” became a carefully-polished symbol of necessity and economy in writing and theatre. A reminder of our urge as humans to predict the future and feel the satisfaction of our instinctive Baysian best-guessing. It is a willingness to see meaning in all things, to leave no detail without relevance.

After writing these words, Chekhov himself broke his own rule in The Cherry Orchard. In the second act, “Simple Simon” Yephikodov, the hopeless romantic, can’t decide whether or not to shoot himself (does it get more Chekhovian?). He carries his revolver around just in case he finally makes a decision – but (spoiler alert!) the gun never goes off. Perhaps Chekhov wanted to make a point of it, use a little reverse psychology against the loaded gun of his earlier letter. Conversely, in Uncle Vanya, we don’t see the gun coming until Ivan storms in and fires off a round of shots. The gun is surprising. That is the point of the gun. 

Ivan is a sort of clownish character – but a clown in the true sense – equally sad and silly. Few can balance these twin characteristics like a good Chekhov character can. Like antique plates spinning precariously on tall sticks, it’s a circus act. And we sit, unconsciously clasping our hands tight together, unsure which way they will fall – if they will fall at all. 

What is it about clowns that makes the gun so much more powerful in their hands? How delicate they are, how clumsy, how naively optimistic they are, how they breathe external validation like oxygen, how their inflated emotional extremes are only a few notches from our own – and from all this excess, we seem to get a feeling that they might understand us better than any other person in the room. The beauty of the clown is that: though they seem so far from our external selves, they are in fact closer to our core reality than we care to admit. They show us the self that hides in the shadow and hides its glossy eyes away from shame. 

Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves, warts and all. It offers us respite from our self-doubts and fears, and opens the door to joy.” Jan Henderson, expert teacher of clown and mask.

Andrew Scott as Vanya

It was a stroke of genius for playwright Simon Stephens, to transform Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya into a one-man play (titled just “Vanya”, published last year, 133 years after the original). It’s never been difficult to identify the title character Ivan as the main focus of the play. The problem is that he exists only in relation to everyone – an uncle to Sofia, brother to a dead sister, and so on. Who is he on his own? We’re never quite sure. 

The classical version, with actors playing all eight parts, allows space for Ivan to be absent – and allows the audience the opportunity to drift away from Ivan’s perspective. We are permitted to take Helena’s view, or see the world through Sofia’s love-lorn eyes, to lose ourselves for a second in the complexity of all the lives existing under the same roof. In Stephens’ Vanya, we see every single moment from Ivan’s point of view. 

The genius of this adaptation is that, just like the clown who shows us our full selves, Vanya shows us how we see the world. Just as Anaïs Nin said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. We can never truly understand the intricacies of other humans, so we condense all the details we know, and a few that we predict, into constructions. We create a concept of who people are in our minds, this informs what we expect of them, and that makes it quite difficult to really be with people and see them for who they really are. This is especially true when we’re with people we know very well, and this makes it difficult to adapt when people don’t act as we anticipate.

In Vanya, with one man jumping between roles, we see Ivan’s mind’s best-guess at what’s going on. We see the way he imagines other characters’ conversations – and never know if it’s imagined dialogue or real. We never leave him, seeing only what he sees when he glances at another character, but not what happens while he’s looking away. And then we see what happens when you believe all that to be real – when you can’t see things as they really are. 

And all this, under the title Vanya – the diminutive form of Ivan. The name he would have been called as a child, when he first began forming all these ideas and expectations.

The new Vanya sold out during its month-long run in the West End, but was recorded live for the National Theatre this year and is still showing in cinemas globally. Andrew Scott is sublime in this role. You’d think it would be confusing keeping track of who’s speaking, that you’d forget who was who – but you don’t. You can’t, in fact, Scott doesn’t let you miss it. A small eyebrow lift, a jiggling knee, a subtle accent change – each character has a distinct and detailed presence, an almost-perfect reconstruction. It’s almost impossible to capture someone’s attention for two hours. Two minutes is hard enough when the average attention span is just 40 seconds today. In TV and film, a shot longer than six seconds feels unusually lingering. And yet – one man in one scene, in a superhuman act of empathy, grace and subtlety for 100 minutes had me transfixed. 

At the beginning of the show (that we unfortunately can’t experience as a cinema audience), Scott pulls back a giant curtain revealing a huge mirror. Is it cheap? That is theatre holding up the mirror, literally, in your face. Or is the mirror the loaded rifle hanging on the wall? Is the mirror, in fact, the thing that must go bang before the play finishes? What the mirror says is: you are the clown – we all are. Sometimes we cry, we feel shame, we indulge, we lust for something ridiculous. 

Sofia (Sonia in this adaptation) – arguably the hidden protagonist, the only one who calls Ivan “uncle”, the one who gives him meaning – finishes the play with the most startlingly beautiful lines. This is the gun that goes off, the shot to the heart, as the audience stares at their own reflections:

“We’ll live through these endless days and these endless, endless nights. We’ll take whatever life throws at us… And when it’s our time, we’ll die. And then, only then, in those last minutes, we’ll see our lives and we’ll see what they were for. We’ll see that our lives hurt and that we cried our hearts out and it was hard. But that was in our nature. […] We’ll look back and […] see all the horrors of this life and this world, and all our pain dissolving in the grace of the universe. And we will understand that our lives were quiet, gentle, sweet as a touch. I believe that.”

Need more? Sign up to Secret Postcard or watch us sing a new song.

May you be well, happy, whole, and free.

T & B


Invite your friends to subscribe!

✨ Enjoying? Subscribe →