Woman Around Town
August 15, 2011
Chekhov’s rural Russian landscapes are populated with bitter intellectuals, bored urban transplants, and blithering peasants—all longing for a better life, a better love, a better land. It doesn’t sound like the trappings of comedy, but Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya manages to elicit a bit of laugher from the loss and longing.
The production—which was transported from Sydney for an exclusive U.S. engagement at The Kennedy Center—is a smart, colloquial adaption written by Sydney’s Co-Artistic Director, Andrew Upton, and staged by the Hungarian director Tamás Ascher. Chekhov’s characters are known for their introspective musings and desperate dramatics, and while Upton doesn’t detract from this, he reveals the humor behind their hurt. After a marathon session of self-loathing and a few too many vodka shots, the futility of it all (life, that is) begins to look a bit funny.
This whirlwind of a production is deftly led by a cast of Australia’s finest stage talent. Richard Roxburgh prowls the stage as Uncle Vanya, spitting venom and gushing self-pity. For years, he has helped his niece, Sonya (Haley McElhinney), run their fledgling family estate. All of its meager profits have gone to Sonya’s father, the Professor (John Bell), a distant intellectual who lives in the city with his second wife, the much younger Yelena, played by the stunning Cate Blanchett. When the Professor and Yelena retire to the farm for an extended stay, they bring with them destruction and disarray.
Roxburgh’s portrayal of Vanya is one of the production’s many treats. He openly pines for Yelena with all that is left of his sad soul, oblivious to the discomfort that it creates. The realization of all these wasted years drives him to the point of manic despair and he rushes, blindly, towards his one last chance for happiness. Roxburgh is a torrent of emotion—he leaps onto tables and delivers comic character assaults, and then crumbles into a crying ball on the floor. His performance is so powerfully engaging that even his brief moments of silence speak volumes.
The equally talented Cate Blanchett proves once again that she is a master of both the screen and stage. She wanders around as the disenchanted object of affection, but after a few swigs of Russian water, she loses all airs of dignified distance, rolling her eyes at Vanya’s musings and delighting in drunken girl talk with Sonya. Her scenes with Hugo Weaving, who you might remember from a little film called The Matrix, are simply electric. Weaving’s charismatic Astrov is a doctor and a family friend, and it is his sharp sensibility that wins Yelena’s heart. Their scenes together make for a masterful acting class, emphasizing the subtle power of a sideways glance or a hand on the knee.
Zsolt Khell’s dark rustic set grounds the play in 1950s rural Russia. Books and papers are stacked against the walls of a large room and a giant pile of wood rests untouched just outside the door. It’s as if everything, both literally and figuratively, has been pushed aside, hidden, repressed. Gyorgi Szakac’s costumes, a dismal array of brown and mustard yellow, add to the desolation. When Blanchett bursts through the door in a clingy red dress, the contrast is striking.
Uncle Vanya presents a rare theatrical occasion where all the stars align on stage. Upton’s adaptation reveals another facet of Chekhov’s existentialism, Ascher’s direction grounds the production in modern day, and the stellar Sydney cast delivers a no-holds-barred performance—Australian accents and all.
Photos by Lisa Tomasetti:
1. Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena.
2. Hayley McElhinney as Sonya and Hugo Weaving as Astrov.
3. Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya
The Kennedy Center
Through August 27, 2011