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Sonia Friedman: It was such an act of courage turning Uncle Vanya into a film

Friedman discusses transforming the stage play for the silver screen

The original stage cast of Uncle Vanya – Richard Armitage (Astrov), Peter Wight (Telegin), Aimee Lou Wood (Sonya), Toby Jones (Vanya), Sonia Friedman (Producer), Ian Rickson (Director), Rosalind Eleazar (Yelena), Ciaran Hinds (Serebryakov), Anna Calder-Marshall (Nana) and Dearbhla Molloy (Grandmaman)
© All images are copyright Dan Wooller, 2020

"Right now I'm sitting in the chair in my cottage where the director Ian Rickson and I had the idea to do Uncle Vanya."

It was a nice way to show just how much producer Sonia Friedman adored her production of Conor McPherson's adaptation of the classic Chekhov play, which was halted by the pandemic this spring. For the show to have its own chair is no mean feat.

But, as our critic Sarah Crompton highlighted when she first reviewed the stage show featuring Richard Armitage, Toby Jones, Aimee Lou Wood, Rosalind Eleazar and more, Vanya certainly is special. Opening at the Harold Pinter Theatre to rave reviews, over the course of the summer it was recorded in its empty home, with an initial cinema release in October.

Friedman was chatting over the phone earlier this month, remarking upon how much of a herculean feat it was to go in and actually film the show. "It was such an act of courage from everyone involved. We knew it couldn't be a theatre capture with an audience, so we tried to create almost a new form – a hybrid – the very best of theatre with its sense of liveness in the muscle memory of the actors, alongside the intimacy of film and television – using handheld cameras. You can't do that with an NT Live – having cameras on stage, or under tables."

But how did Vanya actually get the screen treatment in the first place? Friedman explains: "Before the pandemic, we were going to do it as an NT Live but obviously that fell apart. We eventually realised that, due to the availability of the actors that we only had a two week window to actually bring the company back together again. I asked Ian: "should we film this?" – it felt like lunacy on both our parts. I contacted the BBC and they said that they'd contribute if we could get it together."

As the final film proves, the lunacy certainly paid off, but it was all with remarkable speed: "We had two weeks' notice from the moment we decided to do it until the moment we stepped onto a stage." In the end, actors only had one or two takes to get it spot on – giving the piece that same sense of immediacy and excitement that audiences get when seeing shows live. As Friedman describes it, "a unique, alive atmosphere".

One further complication was the addition of Roger Allam to the cast (replacing an absent Ciarán Hinds) – Allam only had two days to fully rehearse the piece and fit into a well-knit cast.

But the result, as BBC viewers will see tonight, is certainly special. Friedman herself is certainly relieved with the achievement: "It was so cathartic. We captured the extraordinary production while enhancing everything Ian and the team had created."

Rickson has not been idle during the pandemic – creating a wonderful podcast where he interviews eminent theatre figures (including Friedman) – it's well worth checking out.

You can read our previous interview with Friedman here.

Uncle Vanya will be shown on BBC Four tonight and will subsequently be available on BBC iPlayer.