The truth is, of course, that they are both, as is life. To paraphrase Horace Walpole, life is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.
Hungarian director Tamas Ascher’s superb production of Uncle Vanya, with a cast so stellar that it has some of our finest actors in bit parts, is certainly both.
I used to think the perfect Chekhov production was one that trod a fine line between laughter and tears but this one races down the line and keeps falling off it on to one side or the other. The result is gloriously fresh, funny and poignant.
Really, these characters are dreadful whingers; self-centred, overdramatising, obsessed with their own petty suffering and constantly falling in love or trying to kill each other. In this production they are like a bunch of excitable, annoying children whom you can’t help loving. When they burst into tears, which they often do, you have to laugh, but they are genuinely hurt and miserable, so you also feel for them.
Richard Roxburgh’s Vanya, for example, is a shambolic larrikin clown with a deep undercurrent of anger and self-loathing. In the scene in which he finally explodes and lets it all out, confronting the appallingly ignorant and arrogant Professor Serebryakov (played very well by John Bell) for whom he has worked and suffered all his life, the effect is moving until he rushes out and gets a gun and tries to shoot him. And misses. Twice. It’s funny and sad.
Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving have a marvellous chemistry as the only two people in the world of this play who can match each other. Blanchett is Yelena, Serebryakov’s gorgeous, frustrated wife. Weaving is the hard-working visionary Dr Astrov who is seduced into this world and becomes infected, during a long summer, by the family’s lassitude.
For a great deal of the time they manage to maintain their dignity, while we can see their interest in each other, but when it finally breaks down and their interest becomes lust, we have to laugh. Blanchett’s elegance and grace suddenly slip and she leaps girlishly into his arms. The sincerity and dignity of Weaving’s Astrov, with his tireless work as a doctor to the peasants and his passion for the environment, is suddenly undercut when he starts trying to arrange a secret meeting.
The fifth key member of this knotted-together family is Sonya, the plain, strong-minded young woman whose hopeless love for Astrov all but undoes her usually sensible approach to life. Hayley McElhinney is an earthy Sonya whose tough life working on the estate has aligned her more with the peasants than with the glittering world that Yelena comes from. And so their friendship, played here with a great deal of schoolgirl exuberance, comes across as comically unreal. There is a lot of humour in their body language as they giggle and weep together.
Jacki Weaver is splendid as the solidly sensible and devoted Nanny Marina. Sandy Gore and Anthony Phelan, as the household hangers-on, Maria and Telegin, give nicely comic cameo performances. Andrew Tighe has scarcely a word to say as the servant labourer but here he represents all the people whom these self-indulgent characters scarcely notice.
Ascher’s production uses a fine, simple and very direct vernacular text by Andrew Upton. The production is set slightly later than Chekhov’s time, with motorbikes rather than horses. Ascher has brought a design team with him from Hungary. Zsolt Khell’s vast open rustic set is full of space but loomingly oppressive at the same time. With its high rough timber and plaster walls it suggests a lonely rural isolation that could be Russian but that also suggests an isolated station property in the early 20th-century Australian outback. Gyorgyi Szakacs’s costume design, with lots of earthy browns, also dresses Yelena in a series of elegant cosmopolitan clothes that makes it quite clear what an exotic outsider she is and why her influence in this world is so seductive and destructive.
The production is full of wonderful interpretative staging choices, in which a move to a different chair or an abrupt exit tell us all we need to know about what is going on in the hearts of these people; and a pillow-fight or a pratfall tell us what we might think of them.
In the marvellous coda-like fourth act of this great play there is Sonya’s speech of wearily resigned hope as she tries to persuade her poor miserable uncle to battle on. The comedy here falls away. We will work, she says, and one day, beyond the grave, we will rest.
But then, brilliantly, Ascher lightly suggests that the new world – ours – will be nothing like the one that Sonya is dreaming of.