July 23, 2012
It’s a scene that Anton Chekhov himself might have written if he were around today: New Yorkers, frenzied with excitement at the prospect of not one, but two must-see productions of his 1897 masterpiece, Uncle Vanya, playing in Manhattan simultaneously, make a madcap rush to buy tickets, only to discover that one is sold out and the other is going fast. If you’ve been gnashing your teeth because you can’t get in to see Sam Gold’s intimate staging ofAnnie Baker’s fresh, lyrical adaptation of Vanya, featuring a cast of downtown theater all-stars at the Soho Rep (through August 26), relief is here. Now, you can start fretting about how to score a seat to the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Vanya, which opened on Saturday night at New York City Center, with a cast of top-notch Aussies led by the magnificent Cate Blanchett. In life, as in Chekhov, laughter and tears are separated by the thinnest of lines.
I last saw Blanchett on the London stage, in Botho Strauss’s Neo-Surrealist play Gross und Klein, giving a fearlessly slapstick turn that revealed an unexpected gift for physical comedy. She deploys that gift to even more devastating effect in Vanya, giving an astonishing performance that is part Grace Kelly, part Charlie Chaplin, and guaranteed to break your heart. Interpretations of Chekhov tend to be lopsided, either shrouding the comedy in a heavy veil of despair or whistling past the tragedy in a boffo dash for yuks. But this Vanya,adapted by Blanchett’s husband (and co-artistic director of the STC) Andrew Upton, and staged with acrobatic élan by the Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, gets it just right, proving that the playwright wasn’t kidding when he described his work as farce. Sure, this snapshot of spiritual ennui, thwarted love, and squandered lives in the Russian provinces is a downer (Zsolt Khell’s sets, Nick Schlieper’s lighting, and Paul Charlier’s sound design capture the play’s air of weariness and decay). But as performed by Blanchett and Co. it is also raucously, painfully funny. Lassitude has never been this exhilarating.
Blanchett is a performer of remarkable intelligence, bravery, and emotional transparency—for my money, the finest stage actress of her generation—and a generous ensemble player. But she’s also a star, a woman of sublime beauty and transfixing phosphorescence. Who better then to play Yelena, the alluring younger wife of the grandiose professor Serebryakov (John Bell), who arrives for an extended summer stay at a rundown country estate and bedazzles everyone in the vicinity, leaving no life unruined?
Her victims include the aimless, middle-aged Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), his plain, hardworking niece Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), and the alcoholic doctor Astrov (Hugo Weaving) for whom Sonya pines. Suddenly, these lives of tedious, quiet (if often chatty) desperation are filled with the hope of one last chance—for love, happiness, fulfillment—and all hell breaks loose as everyone vies to bask in the hoped-for redemption of Yelena’s glow. Here, there is no such thing as grace, either physical or spiritual, and when these characters fall in love, they literally fall—over themselves and into each other, not to mention any piece of furniture that might get in the way. One minute, Weaving’s Astrov is ruefully saying, “In principle I love life, but this particular one?”; the next, under the spell of Blanchett’s Yelena, he’s tumbling out the window.
Despite speaking only Hungarian, Ascher has elicited superb performances from his entire cast, who convey the inertia and futility of these characters’ lives, along with the bristling, restless need, awakened by Yelena, to make a change and connect. If Blanchett stands out, that’s as it should be. Yelena is as much of a star in her small world as Blanchett is in ours, and so we’re able to see her as Chekhov’s crew of provincial losers do: a kind of perfect, otherworldly creature. (As Vanya tells her at one point, “There is a mermaid’s blood in your veins.”) This makes it all the more disarming to see her come undone—stumbling, banging around, lashing out, and generally losing her dignity along with everyone else. Watch her, in her final scene, as she says goodbye to Weaving’s Astrov, with whom she has fallen in love, hurl herself at him like a feral cat and wrap her legs around his waist, kissing him hungrily, only to fling herself away and tumble across the floor as if propelled by an electric shock. It’s a bravura moment of low comedy. But take a look at the unbearable sadness that briefly crosses her face as she composes herself, and the laughter catches in your throat. If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they call something “Chekhovian,” this is it.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya runs through July 28 at the Lincoln Center Festival in association with New York City Center; nycitycenter.org