Song of a Reformed Headhunter
July 21, 2012
With EN last night, I watched Sydney Theatre Company perform Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the New York City Center. It was an excellent production that accented the tragedy with comic overtones, so that love and ambition appeared pathetic in both senses of that word. Astrove, the suave doctor, fell backwards from his perch on the windowsill while oratorizing. Yelena, the second wife of the Professor, played a silly prank on Sonya by pretending to see a figure in the window behind her step-daughter. When Vanya came in, trying to shoot Professor Serebryakov, Yelena rode on his back in order to stop him. He missed shooting Serebryakov a second time, and the failure seemed the culmination of a long string of bad jokes that fate had been playing on these people.
The director Tamás Ascher is reckoned to be one of the foremost interpreters of Chekhov. His experience with the absurdist drama of Ionesco and Witold Gombrowics certainly colored his take on the Russian. I liked very much his instruction to Andrew Upton who adapted the play into English. Chekhov’s characters are not florid in their melancholy. They are brutally honest and straightforward and so “each line has to be as simple and uninflected as a stone dropped into the pond.”
The cast was uniformly strong. John Bell played Serebryakov, Cate Blanchett Yelena, Hayley McElhinney Sonya, Richard Roxburgh Vanya, Hugo Weaving Astrov. There were no obvious “stars.” All was bent to the service of the play. If Blanchett looked physically the part of the beautiful young wife, she was also emotionally convincing as a woman who was bored with serving a petulant and hypochondriac husband and so was tempted by adultery. Uncle Vanya, voluble in his self-pity, could be highly irritating, but Roxburgh gave him a winning vulnerability. When he walked in on Yelena and Astrov kissing, his pain was palpable as the bunch of roses that he held.