Skip to main content

John Byrne - Uncle Varick

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
reverential.

“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
relishes.

“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
remains prolific.

“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
Art Festival.

“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.
www.rapturetheatre.co.uk

John Byrne in the theatre

John Byrne was born in Paisley in 1940, and trained at Glasgow School
of Art.

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
1982.

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
looming.

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
ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Suzy Glass – Message from the Skies

Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies.This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on d…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…