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Guest Blog: Lucy Bailey on Chekhov in a studio space

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Lucy Bailey is co-artistic director of The Print Room, the west London theatre that she founded with Anda Winters in 2008.

Here she tells us about her production of Uncle Vanya, which stars Iain Glen and Charlotte Emmerson and has this week returned to the The Print Room following a run in the spring. It plays until 7 July.

My only experience of Chekhov’s plays had been watching them from a great distance. One of the finest was Peter Stein’s Cherry Orchard with an Italian cast in a proscenium theatre in Edinburgh. Stein created an intensely realistic and detailed soundscape to evoke each location, which the actors inhabited with an effortless sense of naturalism, totally unselfconscious, whilst communicating an intimate knowledge of each other, despite their distance from the audience. Stein seemed to be following in the footsteps of Constantin Stanislavski, Chekhov’s contemporary, who directed most of his plays for the Moscow Arts Theatre and brought his own theories of naturalism to bear on all his productions.

The combined aura of Stein, Stanislavsky and Chekhov has instilled in me a kind of holy reverence that you feel when you visit certain monuments, or museums. The Italian language added a further layer of mystification, and the result has been to keep me away from Chekhov for the first 20 years of my directing life. Whenever I thought of his work it seemed immersed in a kind of mysterious haze, as if only the initiated could unravel the meaning and so bring his plays to life.

Now that has changed.

By good fortune, the translator Mike Poulton, the actors Iain Glen and Charlotte Emmerson and I, decided to work together. Mike had written new versions of Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. They were both remarkable for their refreshing immediacy, depth and wit. We chose Uncle Vanya as the more interesting option, with Iain and Charlotte deliberately playing against type, as Vanya and Sonya.

Iain Glen and David Shaw-Parker in Uncle Vanya (photo: Sheila Burnett)
Performing the play at The Print Room especially appealed to Iain, who found the intimacy of the space and the vivid presence of the actor very inspiring. Iain understood how exciting it could be to play such a psychologically complex character in a space where the audience can read every flicker of expression. For someone who prepares his roles so intensely, with minute attention to detail, he realised that none of his work would be wasted, and the subtlest of shifts within his character’s mind would be registered by the audience.

In the early stages of rehearsal I struggled with my own confidence as to how to approach Chekhov. I very quickly realised that there was in fact no mystery, and everything I had previously built up about him and his plays was a smoke screen and distraction. Uncle Vanya, I realised, was a painfully funny portrait of frustrated lives and loves, essentially a family drama, which in The Print Room could be approached with total honesty and simplicity. Given such a good script the most obvious thing was to trust in it.

Chekhov resonates in a newfound way in a domestic space. His plays are about people and not historic events. His canvas is the home and the garden where his characters try to pursue happiness. His narratives are confined to his characters' attempts to achieve a better life despite the lack of choice. The human scale of a room is the perfect space to experience the deep humanity which Chekhov brings to his characters. The designer Bill Dudley and I decided to play the piece as if we were all in the same space – with no divide between audience and actor.

Sitting in the same room, the audience feels the same size as the actor. On all four sides they access the story from four different perspectives. There is no one privileged viewpoint. The character’s reality is our reality. I know that the cast felt as if they were under a magnifying glass and what appeared to the audience as exciting in terms of intimacy and closeness was exhilarating, but also terrifying. They must have at times longed for a mysterious haze to descend and the audience to recede to a safe distance! However I am happy to say that my first experience of directing Chekhov was so blessed by the human scale of the space.


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