BRIAN COX is taking time off from the movies to star in John Byrne’s first new play for 20 years, Uncle Varick. Steve Cramer caught up with him for a chat about socialism, the 605 and love.
Grindlay Street to meet me, I wonder where the star
is. Almost sure that I’ve been stood up by Brian Cox, I am about to ask for another interview time, and phone my editor in panic, when a vague sense of recognition occurs. The man trailing across the road after him. shortish and portly, with a red baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, dressed in the most casual of windcheater jackets and a pair of nondescript baggy beige strides, might have been delivering goods to the stage door. Yet as he looks up, I realise that this old dude is not uncle van driver, but Uncle Vanya.
It isn’t until we sit down in the Traverse cafe’ and he orders the ascetic measure of a bowl of soup that I realise that the voice, the quiet intensity and the obvious intelligence of Cox offer the key to a charismatic presence. He often seems noble and darkly fascinating in such ﬁlms as Hidden Agenda, Manhunter and X Men, while the kingly element to his persona will no doubt be well exploited in his forthcoming feature ﬁlm, Troy, in which he’ll play Agamemnon of Greek myth and drama. He doesn’t smile much, but he’s affable throughout a long interview, not an unfriendly man, but a serious one. He also looks quite tired, occasionally running his hand over his face to freshen himself up as our conversation proceeds. He confesses to ﬁnding a rehearsal schedule in the theatre quite tiring, a common problem for folk making a return to all-day rehearsal processes after a lot of ﬁlm, which allows time to relax in your trailer between shoots.
But maybe feeling a little tired is an advantage to an actor about to play the title role in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s tale of an exhausted middle-aged estate manager on a remote property who worships his distant brother-in-law, a Moscow professor, and his disillusionment upon the great man’s arrival. The professor’s remarried after the death of Vanya’s sister. Vanya ﬁnds the new lady compellingly attractive, as does his best mate Astrov, and that familiar Chekhovian feeling of everyone being in love with someone who can‘t or won’t return their affection descends on the tragi-comic ten-strong household. So too, does an elegiac sense of lost opportunity.
John Byrne’s ﬁrst new work for 20 years sees a distinctly Scottish, and smartly historicised version, hit our stages. The action moves from Russia to the north east of Scotland in the mid-60s. The professor, in turn, becomes a TV arts pundit. and his spouse something like a trophy wife. But is there something distinctive about these times and places? And why would Cox, who these days needn’t come to Scottish theatre for his living, want to do it?
Cox’s forthrightness is evident in his answer. ‘I wanted to do it because John Byme is a major dramatist, and this is a major play. I can see that he has a way of approaching it that I’m very much in accord with. He’s taken the play and set it in a context that I remember vividly, and at a time when everything was being formed, a time of great change.’
The nature of this change is one which, on reﬂection, does have some profound parallels with turn of the 20th century Russia, both in the social transformations taking place, and the disillusionment people experienced with the old order. Cox’s take on the play seems inspired by the memories of the 60s
A s the urbane press ofﬁcer of the Royal Lyceum crosses
that he and Byme share. ‘You have to look at that time to see the parallels. John uses the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul in it, and that record marks a deﬁnite change. The Beatles began to change then from a band doing American-style rock’n’roll to something more psychedelic. and they also identified themselves as something distinctly British. from Liverpool. Also at that time, there was the election of the Wilson government, which brought a lot of hope for socialists. It was a very heady time, but we didn’t really embrace the principals of socialism then, and we didn’t notice that we remained an essentially feudalist society. So it’s still an issue now in Scotland: who actually owns the land? We sort of lost ground after that, and didn’t get it back until 1997, that’s if we have got it back since then.’
This little sideswipe at Blairism leads me to question Cox’s politics. Was he an activist in the 60s? ‘I wasn’t really an activist then. I became more political later. At that time. I was too busy getting on with my life. If you became something like a revolutionary socialist you had to be consumed by it, and I was consumed artistically, trying to get on as an actor.’
And there’s a political element to this love story. While Chekhov’s plays are about love, they’re also harshly realistic about how money affects this absolute emotion. And here Cox ﬁnds both history and location relevant. ‘Scotland’s become a bit more wealthy these days as a country, as the proﬁigacy of the parliament shows, but back in the 603, there wasn’t a lot of money around. Scotland in those days depended on the kindness of strangers. That question of money, and where you got it, was relevant then. This, in a way, is why John Byme’s take on the play is so different. The original play looked forward to something, but in John’s version has us going back to the 60s to ﬁnd out where the obstacles were hit.’
This leads us on to why, speciﬁcally. the play reflects on a Scottish national identity. Cox reﬂects for a moment. ‘Well, it’s about that great Scottish relationship with failure. Scots are slightly infatuated with a sense of defeat. It’s the kind of thing I, personally, will have no truck with. But Vanya has had a choice. He’s chosen to slave away for this arts joumalist, a sort of Kenneth Clarke or Huw Weldon ﬁgure. He’s used his remoteness and isolation as an excuse, as if it’s all in a good cause. It’s milder, but it’s just the kind of sacriﬁce that the young working class men of Scotland were willing to make when they went over the top, used as canon fodder in the First World War. No one stops to question why because they want to make a sacriﬁce to this feudal system.’
So what do we learn from this? ‘Well, you’ve got to be careful who your gurus are. Of course, we’re in a feeling of great doubt about that right now.’
And again I get the impression of something of the campaigning old socialist at the heart of this little Buddha-like ﬁgure in raggedy threads, to whom there’s also a little touch of the guru. He conﬁrms these credentials as we rise after our long lunch and I offer to shout us. ‘Oh come on. let me,’ he says, and settles up for us, redistributing the wealth.
Uncle Varick is at the Royal Lyceum theatre from Fri 16 until Sat 8 May.
THE BLUFFER'S GUIDE TO UNCLE VANYA
I The soapy scene Chekhov is the original and highest quality form of soap opera, and this tale of lost love and frustrated ambition is his soapiest. Vanya has spent his life, into his middle age. pinching pennies and running an impoverished country estate in suppOrt of his sister, who has moved to Moscow with her husband. the professor. who Vanya idolises.
I The plot As the play opens, Vanya's sister has died a few years before. and the professor. now quite an established, if ageing, man around town, has remarried. He visits the estate. where Vanya falls instantly in love with the beautiful, but indolent young wife. Yelena.
I The love rectangle Vanya's best mate, the local doctor Astrov, also falls for Yelena. which breaks the heart of Sonya. Vanya's able, but ill- favoured helpmate around the estate. She has long since been in love with the dashing. but rather intense doctor.
I The knots Each is unable to fully declare their love. and neither can the various helpers. neighbours and servants around the estate. each of whom has problems of their own. Impulsively, the professor decides that the best course for his own future is to sell up the estate from under Vanya. which provokes a gun- toting, homicidal rage in his much put-upon brother in law. Confused? You won’t be.
15—29 Apr 2004 THE LIST 27