August 8, 2011
With a cast boasting Australia’s finest thespians and a piece by one of theater’s most highly regarded playwrights, one can only hold high expectations for Sydney Theatre Company‘s staging of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, currently running at the Kennedy Center. That the performance meets these expectations is also no real surprise. But what comes as a revelation is how the production finds notes of humor to strike some balance with its otherwise morose themes of wasted lives, alienation and unrequited love.
Uncle Vanya tells the story of a family headed by aging Professor Serebryakov, played by John Bell. A once celebrated academic whose career and health are in decline, he owns the struggling country estate that once belonged to his late wife. Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) and former brother-in-law — the title character played by Richard Roxburgh — now run the property with help from Marina (Jacki Weaver) and Telegin (Anthony Phelan). Serebryakov has returned to the home along with his young second wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett), whose beauty draws attention from both Vanya and Astrov (Hugo Weaving), a country doctor and forester who is a frequent visitor to the estate.
All of the main characters are pitiable in that none of them have found a satisfactory life. The professor, once full of promise, is now gout-ridden and does not have the standing among the intelligentsia that he once enjoyed. Yelena is giving her best years to the old man, much to the distress of Vanya, who has already given Serebryakov decades of fruitless labor. Sonya has toiled on the property and loves Astrov, though his affections are directed toward Yelena. Astrov dedicated his life to healing the sick and preserving his beloved forests, only to find himself surrounded by peasants while watching his trees slowly disappear. The subdued and earthy palette of the set, lighting and costume design only underscores lives without color.
Though this set-up has the makings of a depressing evening, director Tamás Ascher, who is known for his interpretations of Chekov, finds glimmers of light within the darkness. Consider the scene between Yelena and Sonya, where the two end years of estrangement and share a poignant and all-too-brief moment of sheer joy. Astrov’s drunken dance for Vanya not only brings some welcome comic relief, but also showcases Weaving’s impressive stage presence, making it all the more clear why he is becoming a Hollywood go-to for roles requiring a certain gravitas. Even the play’s climax, in which Vanya attempts to shoot Serebryakov, is portrayed with comedic undertones.
But it is the relationship between the two central women that illustrates the inner conflict all the characters face. Blanchett is rightfully regarded as a once-in-a-generation actor, and her Yelena glides across the stage with a dancer’s elegance. Though she offers nothing of substance to those around her, the lustrous yet superficial qualities of the character become the focus of attention. Meanwhile, the plain Sonya diligently tends to her duties, despite leading a loveless existence, and becomes the play’s moral center. Yelena simply accepts her lot, but it is Sonya that retains some semblance of optimism. As she explains in the play’s closing monologue to Uncle Vanya, yes, the physical world is full of drudgery and unhappiness, but the rewards come in heaven, where “we shall rest.”
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya runs at the Kennedy Center‘s Eisenhower Theater through August 27, 2011. Tickets are $59 to $135 + fees, and full schedule and purchasing information is available here.