The persistent buzz of blowflies. Clothes clinging to your skin. Sweat continually raked back through your hair. The Hungarian director Tamas Ascher’s staging of Chekhov’s tragicomedy conjures up an oppressive stickiness that Sydneysiders will instantly appreciate.
Though the title suggests otherwise, Uncle Vanya is a group portrait of the inhabitants of a rural estate jolted out of their lassitude by the return of the celebrated Professor Serebryakov (John Bell) and his much younger wife, Yelena (Cate Blanchett).
All manner of dormant romantic hopes and resentments are stirred up, none more so than in the estate’s manager, Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), who has spent – indeed, wasted – the greater part of his adult life coaxing a lousy 2 per cent return from it.
Andrew Upton’s translation (crafted from a translation by Alex Menglet) is clipped, colloquial and rough-edged. With Ascher pushing his cast to work against default images of stasis and familiar poses, it makes for a clear, supple and lively exploration of terminal decline.
The designer Zsolt Khell’s set is magnificent in its scale and attention to dingy detail: the chairs seem to have characters of their own; a towering timber wall (reminiscent of the woolstore architecture of the piers across Hickson Road) mocks Astrov’s campaign against the deforestation of the countryside; a cleverly angled door swings open to gives a sense of a labyrinthine house beyond.
Astrov’s motorcycle, a refrigerator and Telegin’s forlorn tuning of a transistor radio suggest we’re in the 1960s, though almost everything else seems to belong to the previous century.
Across the board the performances are exceptional, lead by Hugo Weaving as the burned-out doctor and eco-crusader Astrov. Virile but with voice and manners coarsened by drink, Weaving allows us a clear look at the man Astrov can be as well as the ruin he will likely become. By contrast, Roxburgh’s hunched and rumpled Vanya is already a goner, almost a man without shape. It’s a lovely performance, unflashy and affecting.
Bell’s Serebryakov – gouty, vain, reptilian – is absolutely on the money and Blanchett’s Yelena is not so much a mermaid (as Vanya describes her at one point) but more a fish-out-of-water, dressed in figure-hugging frocks and crowned in platinum curls. Her playing of Yelena’s contradictory mass of feelings is finely graded and funny, typified by the moment when she silently points an imaginary pistol at the back of Serebryakov’s head. Her farewell scene with Astrov is a rom-com mini-masterclass.
It’s Hayley McElhinney who shines, however, playing the plain and long-suffering Sonya, a woman diligently working herself to the bone. Her midnight feast scene with Astrov and a touching and playful tete-a-tete with half-sister Yelena are among this handsome and engrossing production’s many highlights.