It’s notoriously difficult to pull off an Anton Chekhov play. The charm and challenge of his writing is that it’s focused more on subtleties of dialogue and body language than plot. When even the characters on stage complain of boredom, you certainly don’t want your audience to be feeling the same way.
Fortunately, that is certainly not the case in this production of Uncle Vanya. Sydney Theatre Company’s interpretation of this Russian classic shows audiences how wonderful Chekhov can be. The fabulous direction, intuitive adaptation from the Russian text and superior acting from some of Australia’s best talents ensures this production is anything but boring.
Uncle Vanya is ultimately a story about a dysfunctional family. The humdrum but hardworking life on a Russian estate is thrown into chaos by the annual visit of retired professor Serebryakov (John Bell) and his beautiful second wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett). The estate is home to the professor’s daughter from his first marriage, Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), the mother of his first wife, Maria (Sandy Gore) and her son Vanya (Richard Roxburgh). This isolated community is not complete without the Old Nanny (Jacqui Weaver), a poor landowner (Anthony Phelan), a labourer (Andrew Tighe) and occasional visits from The Doctor (Hugo Weaving).
Part of the charm of this play is the qualities of each of the main characters. The professor is a tyrant, with unrealistic demands that puts constant pressure on the household. His wife is stoic on the surface but underneath crumbles under the pressure of her difficult husband and the expectations of his family. Vanya is struggling with being 47 and not having achieved anything of note in his life. He adores Yelena and despite her constant rejections, follows her every move. The professor’s daughter is practical and bright who has insight beyond her years, except when it comes to her obsession with the doctor. Despite him saying repeatedly that he doesn’t have interest in love, she moons after him and hopes that one day he might change his mind.
As they ponder their lot in life and their relationships with each other, it becomes apparent that some of these themes are as relevant in modern day Australia as they were over a hundred years ago in Russia. They struggle with their lack of achievement particularly when comparing their successes to others. The Doctor is particularly passionate about deforestation and how important it is to keep planting trees, a modern day issue that no doubt wasn’t as well known in the late 19th century.
There is fabulous insight into the perceptions of others. How those who think differently are automatically labelled strange instead of unique and interesting. He also explores how some with power can’t see beyond the end of their own noses when viewing the world they live in. There are countless examples in modern life where these insights can be applied.
Andrew Upton’s adaptation ensures that none of this was lost on the audience. The translation is plainly spoken with witty undertones and poignant quotes. Tamás Ascher’s direction ensures that in some moments, words aren’t even needed as whole conversations are conveyed through nuances in facial expressions and body language.
Of course, none of this is achieved without the spectacular cast. With award winning actors playing even the minor roles, it is no wonder that no one put a foot wrong. Richard Roxburgh is suitably desperate yet likeable in the title role, Cate Blanchett is perfect in her portrayal of the contrastingly poised yet forlorn character of Yelena and Hayley McElhinney is captivating as the lovelorn Sonya.
Zholt Khell’s imposing timber backdrop and mismatched, worn furniture sets up the Russian estate perfectly. It is complimented by the brown toned costumes of the country characters, which provides a wonderful contrast to the bright whites, reds, and blues worn by the Professor and his wife.
Sydney Theatre Company’s interpretation of this Russia classic is refreshing and entertaining. If you’ve ever wondered about the enduring appeal of Chekhov, then don’t miss this production.