Barely three months since The Slab Boys revival at the Traverse in Edinburgh, John Byrne is once more back in the swinging Sixties - or, to be exact, about 500 miles north-east of the swinging Sixties - with his Scottish adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which he has both written and designed.
Set in Balinroich, a brewery in the far north-east of Scotland, and as far from Sixties London's thrust to modernity as it is possible to be, it's a seamless translation, geographically at least, from late 19th-century rural Russia to rural Sixties Scotland. Byrne has a robust but respectful approach to the original Chekhov, close to the source material but economising here, aggrandising there.
Varick (Vanya) is a man on the edge, adapting poorly to the presence of his famous TV-pundit brother-in-law, Alexander Sheridan (Serebryakov), who has retired to Balinroich and whom Varick believes has ruined his life. Varick's long-suffering niece Shona (Sonya) keeps the brewery running and harbours unrequited passion for doctor Michael (Astrov), who like Varick has fallen for Sheridan's wife Elaine (Yelena).
Heading the fine cast is Brian Cox, who is superb as Varick, a cantankerous bitter shadow of a man, who finally stands up for himself with the exaggerated despair of the self-repressed. He's even rejected by his own mother, heartlessly played by Edith Macarthur, who puts the needs of her more "accomplished" son-in-law over the evident despair of her own flesh and blood.
When Varick comes at Sandy with a chainsaw, it's almost a joke too far, but Cox rolls convincingly from rage to bitterness to melt-into-the-walls despair. He curls into the background, touchingly, terribly destroyed when he catches Elaine's brief moment of surrender to Michael's passion.
The director, Mark Thomson, adeptly captures the bitter side to the hope that flickers through this tree-cocooned house. Byrne's set is full of the faded elegance of late autumn trees, claustrophobically encircling the worn interior. An accordion playing traditional, melancholic songs is gradually replaced by a tentative fingering of The Beatles "If I fell (in love with you...)". "What am I to do?" pleads Varick. "Nothing," replies the doctor. "Can you give me something?" "It's hopeless," replies Michael.
Byrne puts in his share of cracking one-liners, as when Richard Dillane's Michael shows a glazed Elaine his cherished chart of deforestation: "I can see you're not fascinated, but I'll carry on as if you were." It's these moments that define Byrne's adaptation, like the brief hesitation that speaks volumes as Michael is faced with the choice of rejecting his life's work for love by agreeing with Elaine that "when you've seen one tree you've seen them all". And when Madeleine Worrall as Shona coaxes Varick to let work replace the desolation of unrequited love in her belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife, as she cradles her mentally destroyed uncle in her arms.
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