When John Byrne decided to do a version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, it
was a perfect match. While a century or so apart, both writers were
masters of dissecting human foibles in a way that lent a pathos to
their characters even as some of them looked increasingly ridiculous.
The result of Byrne's interest in Chekhov was Uncle Varick, which
relocates Chekhov's nineteenth century tale of love and life to the
rural heart of north-east Scotland in the thick of the 1960s which was
alleged in far off London to be swinging.
Uncle Varick was first seen a ten years ago at the Royal Lyceum Theatre
in Edinburgh in a towering production that featured Brian Cox in the
title role in an all too rare stage role on home turf. A decade on, and
the assistant director of that production, Michael Emans, is taking the
helm for a major touring revival of the play produced by his
increasingly ambitious Rapture Theatre.
“I was very pleased indeed,” Byrne says with an almost boyish glee
about the revival, which previewed in Lanark last night prior to its
official opening in East Kilbride tomorrow. “It hasn't been done by
anybody since the first production, and I'm sure it was because Brian
Cox was so powerful in it that it put people off.”
For all Uncle Varick's success on stage, Byrne was far from enamoured
with the radio production that followed.
“It was done on Radio 3,” Byrne recalls, “and they could have had the
same cast, as they were working on it in the theatre, but they recast
it, and I couldn't listen to it. It wasn't right. The voices were
wrong, and all sounded the same. It was absolute stupidity and
wrong-headedness. It was ludicrous.”
While Byrne remains aghast at the radio version of Uncle Varick, he is
clearly a fan of its source, even as he reinvented it.
“I don't know how Chekhov does it,” Byrne says, “how he moves you and
makes you laugh. It's a total mystery to me. I saw a production of
Uncle Vanya on television many years ago with Laurence Olivier, and it
was wonderful, just so human and lovely, but I've also seen some of the
dullest versions of Chekhov that make a total arse of it by being too
“I had to think of these people as new characters invented by me, and
not be reverential. There's no point in genuflecting. If you're too
respectful you do the play a disservice. But when I first saw it
I had a laugh myself. You cannae be too funny with Chekhov at all. The
funnier you are, the darker you are with Chekhov. At the end, you're
left with something that's totally about human beings, and you see the
full story of life. You really do.”
For Emans, fully taking the reins of Uncle Varick after cutting his
directorial teeth on the original production is something he clearly
“I love the play,” he says. “I'm guided by plays that fire me up, and I
love Chekhov and I love John's writing, so to bring them both together
in this way, and to make Chekhov accessible in the way John has seems
like a wonderful contradiction, so it's been great trying to match
Byrne and Chekhov. The play works on so many levels, and I can't
remember when a Chekhov play last toured.”
Under Emans' guidance, Rapture have carved something of a niche
for themselves in terms of reviving contemporary Scottish plays. In the
last two years alone, Rapture have toured new productions of Gregory
Burke's debut play, Gagarin Way, Hector MacMillan's 1970s classic, The
Sash and Mike Cullen's neglected 1990s drama, The Collection. There was
also a hugely popular tour of Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson's
earlier play, Shang-a-Lang.
Emans formed Rapture in 2000 after training as a director in London.
He'd grown up in East Kilbride, then a regular stop-off point for the
era's touring companies such as 7:84, Wildcat and Borderline who first
inspired him. Named after David Hare's play, The Secret Rapture, Emans'
company initially produced three or four shows a year, and their output
“We're now only doping one or two pieces a year,” says Emans, “but
we've built up relationships with the King's Theatres in Glasgow and
Edinburgh as well as other venues, so we're doing those productions to
a greater degree, with a lot of time spent touring. I'm very keen for
people to be able to get access to good quality theatre in places where
some theatre companies might not normally go to, so people don't
necessarily have to go in to Glasgow or Edinburgh, and this tour of
Uncle Varick is perfect for that.”
While fully supportive of Emans' production of Uncle Varick, Byrne has
taken a back-seat, leaving Emans to get on with things while he
prepares for his forthcoming exhibition of new paintings at Edinburgh
“I don't have a minute to spare,” says Byrne. “I'm working on number
twelve at the moment, and they need about twenty-five. I know I have to
come up with the goods, and not just any old goods. That's why I'm
happy just to let Michael get on with it, and I'll be going with an
open mind. I want to be surprised and delighted.”
Such generosity and openness of spirit is the key to Byrne's writing.
As Emans observes, “John has such a hugely colourful, artistic style of
writing that's so exciting and uniquely Byrne, the way he gives clues
in the text to how a line should be said. It's so vibrant, but above
all what stands out is just how much he gets the human condition.”
Uncle Varick, Village Theatre, East Kilbride, Wednesday; Howden Park
Centre, Livingston, Thursday; Eastwood Theatre, Giffnock, Sunday. The
tour continues throughout May and June.
John Byrne in the theatre
John Byrne was born in Paisley in 1940, and trained at Glasgow School
In the 1960s Byrne designed jackets for Penguin books, before finding
early approval as an artist for works produced under the pseudonym,
'Patrick', which he claimed to be by his father.
In the early 1970s, Byrne designed the set for The Great Northern Welly
Boot Show, which launched Billy Connolly's career, and for John
McGrath's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.
Byrne's first play, Writer's Cramp, appeared in 1977.
The Slab Boys, the first play of Byrne's seminal trilogy, premiered at
the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1978.
The follow-up, The Loveliest Night of the Year, a title later changed
to Cuttin' A Rug, appeared in 1979, and the third part, Still Life in
In 1986, Byrne's television drama series, Tutti Frutti, appeared. This
was later adapted for the stage in a production for the National
Theatre of Scotland.
In 1997, Byrne wrote a version of Gogol's The Government Inspector.
In 2003, Uncle Varick opened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.
In 2008, Nova Scotia, a fourth part of the Slab Boys plays, premiered
at the Traverse Theatre.
In 2010, Byrne wrote a version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for the
Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where Uncle Varick had first
appeared. Byrne reset the play in 1979 Scotland, with the devolution
referendum and Margaret Thatcher's first General Election victory
In 2013, All The World's A Stage, a new mural for the ceiling of the
King's Theatre, Edinburgh, was unveiled.
The Herald, April 29th 2014