The characters are a world apart: the ruthless, upwardly mobile newspaper publisher Sir Richard Carlisle in Downton Abbey’s Edwardian England and Chekhov’s self-pitying Uncle Vanya, aimlessly wasting his life away on a country estate in pre-Revolutionary Russia. But these disparate roles have both been inhabited by Iain Glen, one of the finest actors of the last 25 years. Although millions have seen him performing in the hugely successful period drama series on ITV, he has now returned to his first love, theatre, to tackle one of the great classical parts at the intimate Print Room in Notting Hill (in a new version by Mike Poulton, directed by joint Artistic Director Lucy Bailey). Regular TV and film work may have raised Glen’s profile – and bank balance – considerably but it is on stage that he has really flexed his acting muscles during his varied and consistently excellent career.
When I interview him at the theatre in a lunchtime break from rehearsals only a fortnight before Uncle Vanya opens, he seems surprisingly relaxed and gives carefully considered answers in his native Edinburgh accent. When I ask him how things are going, he jokes, “After two and a half weeks of rehearsing I could lie and say that we’ve unraveled great secrets and everything’s going wonderfully but it’s a time to experiment, make mistakes and hopefully discover things. Rehearsals are the most exciting but also nerve-wracking time. It changes day by day: something falls into place but at other times you feel off-kilter. Chekhov, as much as any playwright, offers the opportunity for a rich reality but if you’re not making as much of the writing as possible you can feel very superficial!”
Of course, the depth and complexity of Chekhov’s plays mean that they can be approached and interpreted in multiple ways, and as a tragicomedy, Uncle Vanya can move very quickly from pathos to farce. Glen comments, “British tastes for Chekhov have changed a lot over the years. We used to be much more earnest and reverential, and it’s only relatively recently that we’ve started to appreciated his humour fully. We are aiming to make people laugh as well as cry, as long as the comedy supports and does not undermine the seriousness. There is an absurdity in so many of Chekhov’s characters but shown with a compassionate humanity so that ultimately there is some hope for the future of these sad people with their frustrated dreams.”
Glen’s protagonist undergoes a sort of mid-life crisis: after managing the estate with his niece Sonya for many years they are now in danger of losing their home because his late sister’s husband, a retired professor, wants to sell up to live luxuriously with his new young wife in Moscow. Glen is aware of the pitfalls: “Of course, I have to make sure that Vanya does not come across as a boring whinger. I am wary about analysing a character while I’m playing him, but he’s basically a kind, funny man who helps others without feeling that he has realised his own potential.” Glen has grown a full beard for the part, which suits his ruggedly handsome looks. “It just felt right to me – I don’t feel my way into a character from the outside but sometimes appearance can help with getting into the mood.”