The long-awaited Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya as directed by Hungary’s Tamas Ascher is undiluted theatrical magic, a joy to watch. After four acts we were hungering for more.
In this exciting reworking of Anton Chekhov’s 1897 classic, Ascher (aided by Andrew Upton’s colloquial adaptation) has not only adroitly tapped into Chekhov’s ever-present irony to add a layer of his own but has been at pains to emphasize and enhance the master’s signature tragic-comic technique. The play’s necessary imperatives of lassitude, futility and waste may effectively exert themselves as oppressive and debilitating, yet we are granted many entertaining moments of energy and animation. The production’s beautifully calibrated comic ‘ornaments’ – which put demands on the actors’ physical skills – act to enliven and complement, rather than to undermine, Chekhov’s gravitas.
It is easy to say that for 21st century audiences the often glum but worthy Uncle Vanya probably needed a dust-off and a revamp, but this interpretation is simply a revelation. Without disrupting Chekhov’s fundamental objectives of brevity, truth, compassion and audacity, and by shifting its time-frame forward a good half century, the Ascher/Upton blast of fresh air has made Russian angst part of a wider, more modernized and existential discourse. In the context of universal themes I must say I can’t get fussed about accents which do not conform to a standard. What is pertinent is to be reminded that back in the 19th century Chekhov was an avid environmentalist, concerned at the sabotage of forests and wildlife.
Every member of the high-calibre cast excels. Appearance alone gives us a clue to personality: how the characters hold their bodies, how they dress. The weight of the world, for instance, is very obviously resting on the shoulders of Richard Roxburgh as Uncle Vanya; his body is bent, his gait shambling, and his clothes bespeak a barely respectable and threadbare existence. At 47 he feels fulfilment has passed him by, he laments what ‘might have been’. A man who toils conscientiously on the family estate for an annual return of two per cent, he yearns fruitlessly after Professor Serebryakov’s wife Yelena. As a lover he is a bumbler, a novice, an endearing clown (no sign of the rake here) who, while he may have penetrating insight into the overblown pretence and pomposity of the Professor (and indeed his blunt honesty is often devastating), seems unable to intuit the futility of his suit. Quite the most poignant moment of the play for me was Roxburgh’s Uncle Vanya, a magnificent bunch of roses for Yelena (Cate Blanchett) in his arms, coming in from the garden to stand stock-still and dumbfounded at the sight of her falling into the arms of Dr Astrov (Hugo Weaving).
Weaving’s portrait of Astrov is pitch-perfect, admirable. Astrov is the play’s centre of gravity: in him resides the best of Chekhov’s irony, complexity and dualism. With his beard and his big voice lending him an impression of absolute authenticity, Weaving makes of him an attractive man endowed with intellect and self-possession: no stuffed shirt this, but a down-to-earth country doctor dedicated to his patients and to the regeneration of forests. Astrov’s idealism, his burning need to do good in the world, is undercut by despairing outbursts at the laziness, the folly and the destructiveness of man. Of all the people in the district only he and Vanya qualify as ‘decent, cultured men’, he says, adding that the ‘narrow-minded life’ has made them vulgar. There’s a consoling interlude of vodka intake between the pair – helped by failed landowner Telegin (Anthony Phelan) on guitar – which sees Astrov’s natural buoyancy surface in some nifty dancing in what could be a cross between an Irish jig and a Russian folk dance, an eye-opening complication to a man who keeps his pleasure-taking on a tight leash. His vulnerability to the allure of Yelena is a case in point. It is clear that he is tempted, a little bit in love (why else would he be hanging around the estate to the extent that he does?). We sense his struggle and can almost gauge the moment reason wins out. As he sidesteps into detachment, Yelena makes a flying leap into his arms for one last kiss.
John Bell is a formidable presence in this play. As owner of the estate and erstwhile brother-in-law to Uncle Vanya, Professsor Serebryakov has attitude writ large: first, an overweening sense of superiority and second, a tyrannical and irascible impatience. He commands attention from the moment he arrives replete with umbrella, galoshes, and overcoat (in the heat, mind you). His needs are all-consuming. So careless is he to the disruption he causes the household routine that Nanny Marina (Jacki Weaver) is heard to complain often and loudly; only Maria (Sandy Gore), the mother of both Vanya and his first wife is a fawning disciple. As for his young wife Yelena, it is very obvious that whatever enchantment he once represented (fame, fortune?) has long since evaporated. She alternates between kindness and exasperation as he lies on his querulous chaise longue supposedly plagued by gout and/or rheumatism. Even his scholarly credentials are belittled by Vanya. But if Serebryakov is neither a fraud nor a fake he will prove an unprincipled schemer, the exponent of a dawning capitalist mentality. His presumptive plan to sell the estate over the head of his daughter Sonya – the rightful owner – to his own and Yelena’s greater benefit is the insult which caps an insufferable sojourn. As a trigger for murder and mayhem, it is a close run thing.
If Bell is mesmerizing to watch, Blanchett’s Yelena is something else again. Against a backdrop of towering woolshed timbers (an inspired rustic/baronial set from designer Zsolt Khell) – and despite the 1960s accoutrements of a Corningware coffee pot, a fridge, transistor radio, motorbike and helmet – she is an elegant anachronism straight out of Harper’s Bazaar. It’s her role to be beguiling, desirable, to have men drawn to her beauty like moths to a flame. Not for nothing does Vanya call her a mermaid – shorthand for a siren, a seducer, a slippery fish perhaps; while to Astrov she is a ‘furry little weasel’ (what do we read into that? cuddly or carnivorous?). A cultured young woman who has studied music at the St. Petersburg Conservatorium, the disillusioned Yelena now cultivates the habit of boredom. She is meant to personify listlessness, and indeed Vanya accuses her of moving around in a ‘stupefaction of laziness’ – in response to which she leaps vertically into a perfect entrechat, a moment characteristic of Blanchett’s performance overall: graceful languor injected with sudden vigour. It’s clear that she has been encouraged to fully utilize an extraordinary physical agility. Her Yelena is supple and athletic, her body seems elastic as she bends, loops, prowls like a panther in her husband’s sickroom, hurls herself into chairs and flings herself at Vanya to stave off certain homicide. She demonstrates a boisterous energy in a pillow fight with Sonya and a playful subtlety in her flirting with Astrov, a man she recognizes as interesting, original, a ‘genius’. It’s a romance that can go nowhere: she is not in fact a free spirit (in Vanya’s philosophy she strangles her youth in her breast and banishes every vital desire from her heart), not capable or brave enough to enter Astrov’s world of industry and ideas.
Vanya may be an overly excitable romantic who is inept in love and equally inept with a pistol but like Astrov, he is a good man. While the mission of the charismatic doctor is to heal his patients and to grow forest trees, Vanya puts his life, soul and backbone into keeping the estate viable for the family of his beloved dead sister. It is he who sacrificed his inheritance to enable his father to buy the estate as a wedding present for that sister, and it is he who has laboured for years to pay the balance owing to the former owners, the Telegin family (he even goes without to send funds to the Serebryakovs). Now it is for his niece Sonya that he slaves. Played with distinction and spirit by Hayley McElhinney, Sonya embodies all the virtues: good-hearted and capable, she helps to keep the family functioning. She is also shy, naïve and hopelessly in love with Dr Astrov – the only complaint we hear from her is that she is plain. The play ends with Sonya’s sincere belief in an afterlife which will offer reward, and above all, rest. For Uncle Vanya who weeps, it may seem he must endure an eternity before he earns that rest. On the other hand the Schopenhauer in him, the voice of pessimism, could be dismissing the message as a bunch of platitudes.
Perhaps it is Chekhov who has the last word. He has left us with man’s future happiness in the hands of a visionary like Dr Astrov, busily planting trees to be enjoyed in a thousand years’ time.
Wit and playfulness, guts and unpredictability characterize Tamas Ascher’s treatment of Uncle Vanya. Tour de force seems inadequate as a description.
Uncle Vanya will run at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, until 1 January, 2011.