We were fortunate to have completed the majority of the race – there were about six weeks left. We were quite surprised that our houses were full every night. Then Broadway turned dark and you could feel the change in the atmosphere within our business that was inevitable. The next week we got in to work and were told it was all gone. We sat on stage for a while, unsure of what to do, we all had a quick drink with the crew and that was it – we were locked out.Over time it became clear that we would not be returning. Like most other commercial theaters, opening up to a socially distant audience is not financially possible, but also logistically it’s really difficult for these old London theaters.
What was interesting to me this past week was that much of the play, from a doctor’s perspective, is about living with epidemics and the stresses of life. It started to resonate in a different way. When Chekhov was writing the play, he was dying of tuberculosis and they had just gone through two epidemics. As a doctor, Chekhov was on the front lines. For the Russians watching the play at the time, the idea of an illness that would permanently kill you was much more immediate. Suddenly, over the last few weeks of performance, the play felt so much more relevant. It was quite extraordinary.
The play’s environmental concerns also resonate with this pandemic year and our renewed appreciation of the natural world.
People thought that the environmental elements of the play had been added because they seemed so contemporary – the conversations about deforestation and this man’s efforts to replant the forest. But it’s there in the original, probably in slightly more detailed form as Conor McPherson was more economical with the language in that version.
After closing to the public, the actors returned to an empty theater to film Uncle Vanya. Had a cinema version always been planned?
There was going to be an NT Live – they did a scratch recording. So that was a huge disappointment, but the fact that we finally got to make a movie – and a lot more of a hybrid production than anything you’ve seen before – was really exciting. Hats off to [producer] Sonia Friedman who has just taken a leap of faith.
How is it different from other pieces on film, like the recording of The Crucible that you made at the Old Vic?
Usually, when you capture live performances, one of the benefits is that you include the audience the night you are filming. We shot for a week and did one act a day using six cameras at various locations in the auditorium with different lenses; the cameraman would also take the stage with a handheld and travel with us for innovative and detailed shots you could never capture without staging the piece specifically to film it. Even the audience who came to see the play will receive something more than the day they saw it. There were certain moments in the room that in the rehearsal room we really wanted to be intimate, but when you’re playing in front of 800 people you have to open the room. So we were able to bring him back to a much more intimate and claustrophobic place.
What was it like to perform in an empty theater?
We were so excited to get back on stage. At first, the film crew and the film crew felt like a sparse audience. Every day I stood there and remembered watching the assembled audience. It was a real feeling of nostalgia, sadness actually, wondering how long it will be before we can have full audiences again. It’s not a luxury but a natural instinct to want to gather in a room and watch something live – whether it’s stand-up in a pub or jazz in a basement bar. There’s just this human instinct to want to come together.
What do you think of the government’s response to the arts crisis?
The government is trying to rotate a lot of plates. Our industry is vulnerable – we can’t really go back to work without an audience. I have the impression that the response was late and that there was probably not enough initiative to make it work. We could have done something for theaters like the “eat out to help” program – if theaters could operate at 30% capacity, maybe the government could have subsidized to get them to break even. . This does not happen. I suspect it’s because there are too many struggling industries. For some reason, the arts are never considered a critical industry. Everyone in the arts has felt incredibly insulted by the idea that the arts are not viable. It makes money. If theaters are dying in small towns, the center of the community is gone. You need a longer term view to invest in and keep these places alive.
The Haymarket in your hometown of Leicester was one of the first cinemas to close due to the pandemic.
I was there recently. My little nephew wants to be an actor and I saw him play in an amateur production there. It was a great theater space. Leicester is lucky because there are other places. But there are small towns that don’t have a lot of arts centers and when they left, they left. We’re kind of hooked on a thread. Another nail in the coffin is the news of the suffering in theaters.
You’ve done a lot of voice work and recorded audiobooks – what’s the point of lending your voice to a project rather than your appearance?
I like to read. I think that’s what got me into this job. It wasn’t about watching movies and wishing you were there, but reading books and, in my imagination, making a mini-movie out of them. An audiobook is very similar to this. I get real satisfaction from it. Very rarely have I found a book that I haven’t logged in with. I read as if I were reading to a person. It helps to understand why I do what I do. I love to tell stories.