Mission improbable: men from Uncle

What is it about Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that warrants three movie versio ns in one year? Marianne Brace looks for answers
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The Independent Culture
Think of Chekhov and you imagine light filtering through birch trees, boiling samovars and actors fretting in straw hats, swooshing dresses and pince-nez.

But forget the window dressing and Chekhov fits anywhere. The Russian landscape could as easily be an Australian one, its equal in vastness, isolation, impossible distances. Or make that country estate Welsh, with despairing sheep-farmers who are ready to blow their brains out. Ship those Russians to America and suddenly Chekhov's households seem very like Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller's families in crisis.

It may explain why we're about to get not one but three Chekhov films. What's more surprising is that they're all versions of a single play, Uncle Vanya. The American offering, Vanya on 42nd Street, directed by Louis Malle, opens tomorrow. Spring will see August starring and directed by Anthony Hopkins, followed by Michael Blakemore's Australian Country Life with Sam Neill and Greta Scacchi.

And there was almost a fourth. The director Sean Mathias, whose Uncle Vanya at the National Theatre sold out, started location scouting but dropped the project - three uncles seemed more than enough.

It's not the first time there's been an embarrassment of same-name films. Bad timing brought double Dangerous Liaisons from Stephen Frears and Milos Forman (though Forman called his Valmont). In 1973 we had two of Ibsen's The Doll's House. Claire Bloom repeated her stage performance in one, Jane Fonda did her feminist bit in the other. Neither fared well at the box-office.

Past experience shows that audiences don't stretch, and that one film usually loses out. In addition Uncle Vanya, good play though it is, doesn't have obvious screen appeal. Had the internationally starry Anthony Hopkins not been attached to August, would Granada Films have helped with the budget?

Michael Blakemore wrote Country Life 10 years ago. "People liked the script and it nearly got off the ground three or four times," he says. But it has taken this long to make because financiers doubted there was an audience for one Uncle Vanya, let alonethree.

The film-makers believe that Chekhov's end-of-the-century vision resonates. "What's astounding about Uncle Vanya is that it's so modern," says Andre Gregory, whose theatre production Malle filmed.

"Let's face it, a lot of great theatre is about family. This is a middle-class family that is on the point of economic extinction and homelessness. In America we're living in a hopeless time. There is profound despair. There are millions of people who are angry and they don't know what they're angry about. In Russia the name Vanya means something like Joe or Dan. So [actor] Wallace Shawn, in emphasising Vanya's rage, has created a prototypical American little man who is furious."

The American and Australian films couldn't be more different. (August, set in 1890s north Wales, isn't yet finished). Malle's film was as quick to make as Blakemore's was slow - the film was released a mere seven months after raising the $800,000 budget.

Blakemore uses the play as a starting point, relocating it in New South Wales after the First World War. Malle, meanwhile, shows a contemporary rehearsal in a New York theatre with the participants arriving to the strains of jazz. There are no costumes and no scenery; the actors give intimate and spell-binding performances. (One Spanish film festival awarded "first prize for acting to the entire company!")

It's no coincidence that shots are so tightly framed on the performers. "Louis was a diver who developed underwater photography for Jacques Cousteau. He was fascinated by filming fish close up. For sure, My Dinner with Andre is these two exotic, rare fish filmed in close-up and it's the same with Vanya," says Gregory.

According to Gregory, "Vanya is Louis' favourite play in the whole world." Gregory started working on Uncle Vanya five years ago, assembling a group of actors to give performances for small invited audiences. They rehearsed it on and off during that period for about 4 months - "with the exception of My Dinner with Andre, it must be the longest rehearsed movie in the history of film".

Gregory had been drawn to the play "when my wife developed breast cancer. She died nearly three years ago and we'd been married 33 years." He found himself preoccupied with the concerns of the play: time passing, mortality, how we can live "fruitfully and joyfully".

For the antipodean Blakemore, it has also been a personal quest. "I'd always thought that Vanya offered a good chance to say something about Australia and its relation to England." To an older generation of Australians England was home. "I grew up very much under the myth of the British Dominion. When Chekhov's three sisters say they want to go to Moscow, it's like Australians saying they want to go to London."

In Chekhov's play, Professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young wife return to the estate run by his brother-in-law (Vanya) and Serebryakov's daughter (Sonya). Vanya, in love with the professor's wife, is tormented by his belief that he has wasted his life.

Hopkins plays Vanya as shambling and crumpled. Gregory's starting point was also his casting of Vanya. He says, "Wally is a nonentity, a totally mediocre person. When he says `I could have been a Dostoyevsky', you know he might have become something quite fine. There's potential for unrealised promise and failure in all of us."

Blakemore took on the role of the professor (renamed Alexander Voysey; uncle Vanya becomes uncle Jack) when Nigel Hawthorne dropped out. "When I was a kid many people went to England, became pommified, then came back and lived off the values they'd acquired there.

"The idea of this awful man lording it over his family fitted in with the Australian experience."

lt would have been easy for Blakemore (who has directed a West End Uncle Vanya with Michael Gambon and Jonathan Pryce) to turn a camera on an existing production. "I didn't want to do that," he says. "By and large, I don't think making plays into films is always a good idea - they tell their stories in different ways. And with most plays that get straight on to film, you're so aware of the artificiality, aren't you?"

Even Hopkins (who collaborated on the script with Julian Mitchell) started with his film of August and then put it on stage at Theatr Clwyd in Mold with the same cast - a sort of play of the film.

The most faithful rendition of Chekhov is Gregory's. But why film it at all? Gregory says, "A lot of film directors had come to see it as a theatre piece - Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet - and said `What a tragedy if there's no record of this.' "

Even so, Gregory stresses that this is a film in its own right. "Louis is a great movie-maker and we were very clear about not wanting to simply make a record of a theatre production." Malle has extended the story, just as Blakemore has. But while Blakemore has widened the picture - parting shots of characters tell us what their lives will be - Malle has instead delved down into a subtext.

"Louis has made a movie about the theatre. We talked a lot about All About Eve, and the movie is drenched with a love of theatre. Here is a little group of actors who met for years for no money, just for the passion of doing it. Now the film is opening all over the world. It's like a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie where the kids get together in a barn and the show goes to Broadway."

When the film director Volker Schlondorff attended a live performance he was struck by the power of the abandoned theatre building. Gregory says, "Behind us in this empty auditorium were the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of theatregoers. There's no theatre in New York now. It's gone, finished. So for Americans the movie is a kind of glorious, exquisite swansong."

Yet despite their differences, is there room for three Uncle Vanyas? For Blakemore there's the anxiety that Country Life may be dismissed as sub-Merchant-Ivory. He thinks August provides the greatest competition. Gregory does, as well. "I'm delighted that we got to the starting gate at least half a year before. If Anthony Hopkins had been in town at the same time, I really don't think we'd have made it. Personally," he says with enthusiasm, "I can't wait to see the others."

n Adam Mars-Jones reviews `Vanya on 42nd Street' opposite