Tamas Ascher directs a star-studded, irreverent production of Uncle Vanya, writes JOYCE MORGAN.
Any idiot can face a crisis – it is day-to-day living that wears you out, according to Chekhov. And it is that wearying banality that the playwright insisted on putting before an audience.
"In life, people are not every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves and making declarations of love," he wrote. "And they are not saying clever things every minute. For the most part they eat, drink, bang about and talk nonsense. And this must be seen on the stage."
But how do you make dull, uneventful lives compelling to watch?
Anyone who saw Hungarian director Tamas Ascher’s memorable production of Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Sydney Festival a couple of years ago would have no doubts that it can be done – even when performed in Hungarian with surtitles.
There will be no need for surtitles in Uncle Vanya, which Ascher is about to direct for the Sydney Theatre Company and for which he has assembled a stellar Australian cast, including Richard Roxburgh in the title role, Cate Blanchett, John Bell, Hugo Weaving, Jacki Weaver and Sandy Gore.
"We know these characters, with their botched-up lives, so well," Ascher says. "These unhappy people tormenting each other and themselves are a deeply sad sight but as soon as we are able to glimpse ourselves in them, it becomes infinitely hilarious at the same time."
Uncle Vanya is today a giant of the repertoire but it left Tolstoy tugging his beard when he first saw it performed in Moscow in 1899, famously wondering where the drama was. Many audience members have felt the same after sitting through the reverential productions that all too often have befallen Chekhov’s work.
"Apart from one scene, the plot doesn’t get overtly dramatic," Ascher says. "It is often the seemingly most boring dialogues that conceal the deepest tension, while apparently melodramatic lines will provoke the most heartfelt laughter, if we do a good job."
Budapest-born Ascher is one of the world’s foremost Chekhov directors. As co-founder and director in residence of Hungary’s Katona Jozsef Theatre, his acclaimed productions of Ivanov and Three Sisters have toured internationally.
Ascher says the work remains fresh and modern a century after it was written. New political events and theatrical ensembles open up different layers of understanding. Ascher set Ivanov not in provincial Tsarist Russia but in the grim ’60s communist era, a period Ascher knew well. He will not discuss his setting of Uncle Vanya, preferring to leave an element of surprise for audiences.
There is a freshness and irreverence in Ascher’s approach, Blanchett says. She acknowledges Chekhov comes with a weight of expectations and a history of reverential and turgid productions.
"You can come to Chekhov as actors – and as an audience – with a bit of baggage," Blanchett says. " Tamas is saying: ‘Leave that at the door and we are going to see what happens.’ "
Blanchett plays Yelena, the 27-year-old wife of the elderly Professor (Bell), whose arrival disrupts the provincial world of Vanya and his household.
"What Tamas is able to do is to harness that irreverence but it never feels like it is a take on Chekhov. You feel like you are getting to the heart of something," she says. "What he is really trying to develop and orchestrate is a series of moments, explosions, denouement that are based on ensemble playing."
Chekhov neither romanticises nor judges his characters, Ascher says. The playwright is unflinching in his view that no one succeeds in fulfilling their goals and there are no winners. Nonetheless, this is not unrelieved bleakness.
"Chekhov is never didactic and he never passes judgment over his characters," he says. "They are never black and white, there are no heroes and no villains. Even the most miserable ones are depicted with beauty, gentleness and much humour."
Uncle Vanya opens at the Sydney Theatre on November 13; previews from November 9.