Richard Armitage suspected the show wouldn’t go on. He had seen theatres close on Broadway in New York and realised it was only a matter of time before London’s West End followed suit. On Saturday 14th March, he and the rest of the cast performing in the Harold Pinter Theatre’s hit production of Uncle Vanya had played to a full house of people wearing masks. Ironically, “there was a significant reduction in the amount of coughing happening in the audience, which was great,” recalls the actor.
He arrived at the theatre two days later with an ominous feeling: “I knew it was coming,” he says. The show’s producer called the actors together and broke the news that there would be no performance that evening, or for the foreseeable future. “We all stood there in shock, and then we cracked open the prop vodka, which was actually real vodka, and we had a little impromptu party and went home.”
COVID-19 had brought an abrupt end to one of the most critically acclaimed shows in London. Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic 1898 play about unrequited love and unfulfilled lives among the Russian middle classes had people flying from the other side of the world to see Toby Jones, Rosalind Eleazar, Aimee Lou Wood and Anna Calder-Marshall perform alongside Armitage in a production The Guardian described as “perfect”.
The Spooks and North & South actor is not one to rest on his laurels. The next day Armitage rigged up a home radio studio and knuckled down to recording a backlog of audiobooks he had promised to read. Having completed the task, he flew back to America and started to develop projects for his newly founded production company. As far as he was concerned, his portrayal of the hard-drinking, socially aware local doctor Astrov in Uncle Vanya – a role Chekhov modelled partly on his own experiences as a medic – was in the past.
And then the phone rang. It was the producers of the London production wondering if he would fly back to make a filmed recording of the play. There was one caveat: it might not happen. “I knew there was a point that if I didn’t get on an aeroplane, I wouldn’t be able to quarantine in time to make the film, so I got on a plane anyway,” he says. “If it falls apart, it falls apart. But I don’t want to be the reason it falls apart.”
It didn’t fall apart. Two weeks later, he and the original cast (with the exception of Roger Allam, who replaced the unavailable Ciarán Hinds as Professor Serebryakov) returned to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre and the ghostly sight of their stage set, now seemingly frozen in time.
The six-camera film crew worked on one side of a COVID-19 divide, while the actors reprised their roles on the other in front of banks of empty seats, a sight that took Armitage back to his early acting days when he “played to more people on stage than in the audience”.
Shooting took four days, with close-ups recorded at the end by camera operators wearing full PPE. It was a joyful experience tinged with sadness for all those involved: they knew it really was the last time they would bring this witty, snappy version of Uncle Vanya to life. The wrap party was hardly the stuff of legend, as cast and crew were not allowed to gather. “So, we all stepped outside in the rain and had champagne on the street,” recalls Armitage.
He tells me he hasn’t watched the finished production, that he can’t bear to look at himself. “I’m always disappointed. My blood runs cold. I always think I’m so much better than I really am.” I have seen it, however, and can report that what was a five-star stage show has been transformed into a five-star film. Co-directors Ian Rickson and Ross MacGibbon have made an exquisite screen version full of vitality and soul; it’s not a static filmed play, but a dynamic movie of a memorable production.
Armitage thinks it could be a model for the future, to ensure other hit West End shows can have a life beyond the theatre, allowing them to be seen by an audience far bigger than could ever be accommodated in a limited stage run.
The pandemic has put in peril so much we had long taken for granted, not least a trip to the theatre. The live performance sector has been devastated by the prolonged closure, with many speculating that when it does eventually fully reopen, venues will have gone bust and performers will have changed careers. Armitage is more hopeful: “I think there will be a massive rush of energy. Those theatres with a full house again; I want to be there. I want to be in the audience. The first days back are going to be amazing.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.