I first met Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett on the telephone two years ago. Wonderfully, they were eager to discuss ways in which productions from the Sydney Theatre Company might come to the Lincoln Center Festival. We talked about their staging of The War of the Roses, a compilation of Shakespeare’s history plays; we talked about an adaptation for the stage of a sprawling novel about the early history of Australia. And then, after the tremendous success that the Sydney Theatre Company had with their production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I was afraid that we would not be able to lure the company to Lincoln Center. Undaunted, however, I met Cate and the Sydney Theatre Company executive producer, Jo Dyer, for coffee, having seen their company [in Washington, DC] in the best performance of Uncle Vanya of my theatergoing life.
We talked about the previous night’s performance and the extraordinary cast—even the role of Marina, Old Nanny, usually not key in a production, was played by an Academy Award-nominated actress, Jacki Weaver. We discussed the director, Tamás Ascher, whose Ivanov (Lincoln Center Festival 2009) in Hungarian had inspired Andrew and Cate to invite him to direct Uncle Vanya. And very happily, we agreed that the Sydney Theatre Company should come to Lincoln Center Festival 2012 for 10 performances at the newly renovated New York City Center.
NIGEL REDDEN: We are thrilled that you are bringing this production of Uncle Vanya to the Lincoln Center Festival. Can you tell me what it means to you and the company to stage the play in New York?
CATE BLANCHETT: It’s an absolute privilege, and it’s wonderful to be juxtaposed against all the other extraordinary things that you program for the Lincoln Center Festival. Often when theater is talked about in New York, it is talked about as if it were a sort of homogeneous blob. There are so many different types of audiences in New York, and we are very excited to be there in a festival context because it generates a way of looking for an audience that’s very different than if we were doing a four-month run. There is a special, “see it now or you miss it” feeling that we are all very excited by.
ANDREW UPTON: It is also the chance to do the play again [after the Washington, DC, production] with this particular cast because Tamás comes from the tradition of plays being directed and then going into repeats. I think he had The Three Sisters in rep for 12 years. He is brilliant at re-rehearsing. This is a thing that very rarely happens for Australian actors, where they get to play a role—great roles like Vanya, Astrov, Yelena, Serebryakov—in front of one audience, then some time passes, and they get to look at it again, very briefly. But in the hands of a skilled redirector, the looking at it again is a complete re-evaluation or a complete reinvestigation, which is very, very rare for the Sydney Theatre Company. And obviously to bring Uncle Vanya to New York is a really nice way to end it.
CB: This is the third time that Andrew and I have taken a show to New York. We were here with Streetcar at BAM, and before, Robyn Nevin had programmed Andrew’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler, which I was in. So now, to come back, it hopefully gives a sense, for those who are interested, of the breadth of the work that happens at the Sydney Theatre Company. And it feels wonderful to be forming a relationship with Lincoln Center because the work that goes on there is so diverse and of such high quality, it’s wonderful company to be in.
NR: Well, thank you for that. Clearly filmgoers know you, Cate, very well, but here they get to discover you as a stage actress with this extraordinary company you’ve put together. It is the kind of cast that very few theater companies can put together anywhere.
AU: We are incredibly fortunate to have Jacki Weaver playing Nana and John Bell playing Serebryakov, and it’s definitely been—for us personally as artistic directors—one of our favorite projects. I think [this production of Uncle Vanya] has all the things that separate good theater from a great theater experience. There was just this serendipity around the way that piece of programming happened. It found its own voice, it found its own time, it found its own cast, it found its own director, and now it is finding this lovely extended life.
CB: But I think when more theater companies tour to New York with increasing regularity, you start to get a sense of the breadth and the interesting nature of the work that is going on in Australia, because Australia is not necessarily internationally associated with a strong theatrical culture. As you said, Nigel, film is such an international medium, and our sporting prowess is well understood internationally, but I think, on a diplomatic level it does diversify the perception of what Australia is capable of culturally. That was a big ambition for Andrew and me when we returned to Australia to lead the company. We knew from direct experience the depth of talent in Australia, and it was a big ambition for us to get the work out.
NR: This is an extraordinary cast, and their performance in Washington was really breathtaking. The adaptation I also thought worked extremely well. How much did you adapt it, Andrew?
AU: Very little. With Anton Chekhov, it’s about getting out of the way. As an adaptor, I like to get direction, and Tamás gave me very clear, simple direction, which was that he wanted to stick very close to the structure of the Russian. He said he felt that a lot of English translations made the Russian way more florid and languid than it is; it is actually quite short and brutal and punchy. The effect of the dialog should be like a simple stone being dropped into a pond. He didn’t want me to write the ripples; he wanted the actors to play the ripples.
NR: Also, he made Uncle Vanya funny. There is a lot of humor in it, I found, and humor is always difficult in a foreign language. Tamás seemed to be very attuned to that in Ivanov, and it seemed also true very much in the Uncle Vanya.
CB: It was very useful for Andrew and me to have seen Ivanov, which we loved, and the absurdity of the characters’ situations as they see themselves, juxtaposed against the situations they actually found themselves in. Tamás was very attuned to life’s absurdities and how physical and left-field the actors’ choices could be on the floor. For me as an actor, but more so for us as artistic directors while talking to the other cast members in advance of working with Tamás, it was very informative having seen that production.
NR: Tamás brings something out in Chekhov that few directors do. Certainly that was the reaction we heard from the audience and the critics when we had Ivanov here in 2009; I think that was the reaction to your production of Uncle Vanya [in Washington, DC], that it was not only a stellar cast and wonderfully performed, but that it had a kind of rawness and a vision and a poignancy and a humor that Uncle Vanya doesn’t always have.
CB: I think it’s what Andrew was referring to before—that often in the way these plays are tackled and appropriated into the English-speaking theatrical culture, there is a sentimental relationship to the text and the situation, a languidness in the performance, something somehow reverential. These characters are madly eccentric. In fact, I think the absurd times which Tamás found himself living through in Hungary in his lifetime have given him a very unique perspective on what is real and what’s not real, and therefore his sense of humor has an incredible heart to it, but it also can go to quite extreme places.
NR: That sort of absurdist quality, which I didn’t associate with Chekhov, definitely comes out.
AU: Because I am in and out of the rehearsal room, I started to have this fantasy of Hugo [Weaving] and Richard [Roxburgh] playing [Waiting for Godot’s] Vladimir and Estragon because there was something about the way Tamás, particularly in the fourth act, was creating this atmosphere between Vanya and Astrov that really reminded me of a Beckett-ian situation. At the same time, Tamás was saying to both of them that one day they should play Vladimir and Estragon together because they would be perfect in those roles. We put those twos and twos together, and we are in talks to invite Tamás back next year to direct both Hugo and Richard as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, which I think will be a really beautiful culmination of the relationship that those three have formed artistically.
CB: The wonderful thing about Hugo and Richard—and this often doesn’t happen in Uncle Vanya—is that Richard is an actor who has played Hamlet. He is a hero, a leading man, and often Vanya is cast as a misanthropic, no-hope kind of figure. To have two heroes, men who could have walked the same path but made slightly different choices and somehow ended up in the same place, is fascinating. Initially when speaking to them about Vanya, we discovered that they had been talking years ago about playing it and swapping roles each night because, really, even though I think Richard is perfect casting as Vanya, there is a sense that he could also play Astrov. That is something that Tamás really worked with in the way he built the relationship between the two men.
NR: Do you both choose the repertory for the company?
AU: Yes. Actually it is interesting, the evolution of Uncle Vanya. We were very keen to find a good Chekhov to do—there isn’t a bad Chekhov to do— and then we were talking to both Hugo and Richard. They both expressed interest in the play as well. Once you decide to do a Chekhov, it really becomes a question of which one [you prefer] rather than which one is better than another. And the choice was about the cast in the end, and we just found ourselves with a dream cast for this beautiful play.
NR: But you’ve decided to step down in a year or so from the artistic directorship?
AU: It is the end of our time. We are in the second year of our second contract. It feels as if in Sydney, and Australia in general, there is a lot of vitality and change going on in the performing arts, certainly in theater. It just feels about the right time to finish, really; it’s definitely right for us. It’s been not great for me as a writer, and that’s just to do with the size of the job. And it’s tied Cate to the company. I just think it is the right time to go; we have done our time.
Lincoln Center Festival runs July 5 through August 5; the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya will be performed July 19 through 28 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.