Vanya and Sonya both pine after people they cannot have; Vanya is consumed with passion for Yelena, Serebryakov’s young and beautiful second wife, while Sonya is hopelessly in love with Astrov, a local doctor and conservationist. Yelena, who does not return Vanya’s passion, feels trapped and suffocated by her arduous, lifeless marriage with the elderly, cantankerous professor she does not love. Astrov, who is oblivious to Sonya’s feelings, and indeed, largely oblivious to Sonya herself (at least as a potential partner) laments the lack of love in his life, and the deterioration of his intellect and character that he feels is a result of the stifling monotony of country life. When Astrov falls for Yelena, who, despite her intentions to lead Astrov to Sonya, finds herself enamoured by him in return, the characters are drawn into a twisted knot of destructive love that has far more sides than a triangle.
In this production, it seems that adaptor Andrew Upton and Hungarian director Tamás Ascher have worked cohesively to create a faithful and evocative portrayal of Chekhov’s classic, blending comedy and tragedy with delightful fluency. Ascher and Upton do not fail to capture the moments of dramatic tension and piqued emotion that bubble beneath the surface of Chekhov’s script. The emotional strain of these moments is tempered, though, with an emphasis on the darkly comic elements that emerge through the sophisticated interplay between the pitiable yet enthralling characters. This is a truly humorous production – a choice of direction which may seem surprising for such a bleak and rather tragic piece of theatre, but one which is in keeping with Chekhov’s own intentions for the play. Beneath the joking façade, however, significant concepts continue to brew.
The production, featuring Cate Blanchett as Yelena, Hugo Weaving as Astrov and John Bell as Serebryakov (as well as Sandy Gore, Hayley McElhinney, Anthony Phelan, Richard Roxburgh, Andrew Tighe and Jacki Weaver) was almost guaranteed success before rehearsals even started. The stars’ performances were expectedly commendable, but so too were the performances of their colleagues. While it was perhaps unavoidable that Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving would outshine the others a little, Richard Roxburgh, as Uncle Vanya, held his own with these elite stars. Indeed, the cast seemed to work together to create the complex, somewhat disturbed, yet strangely charismatic characters, achieving a palpable chemistry between them.
Yet the presence of famed actors cannot help but raise expectations, perhaps even a little too high, at least for those who aren’t familiar with (or don’t appreciate) Chekhov’s use of an understated plot to emphasise the nuanced rendition of mood, atmosphere and social/psychological concepts. For those who do appreciate this style, however, the production will certainly be a treasure. And for those who don’t, there is plenty of humour to provide amusement. In the last scene, Astrov says to Yelena, “I’m joking… sort of.” It seems to me that this little line captures the essence of the whole production.