‘Uncle Vanya’ , by Anton Chekhov, premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1899, directed by and featuring Konstantine Stanislavski as Astrov; a play with a pedigree and one sometimes feared by audience and performer alike. The Sydney Theatre Co., in association with Bell Shakespeare, has assembled possibly one of the best casts that this city has seen in a long while, so we are expecting something pretty damn special.
The plot: In the day-room of a run-down country estate Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), his mother Maria (Sandy Gore), his Old Nanny (Jackie Weaver) and his niece Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), the daughter of Serebryakov (John Bell), the owner of the estate, all live their life in a constant, timely, ordered struggle. With the arrival of Serebryakov and his much younger wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett) that orderliness has begun to collapse; lunch becomes dinner, work is ignored and love affairs that have been simmering below the surface finally come to the boil and then, like the estate itself, begin to crumble and fail. No one seems happy. Vanya is in love with Yelena: Yelena is in love with Astrov (Hugo Weaving): Astrov is in love with Yelena: Sonya is in love with Astrov: Maria is in love with Serebryakov: Serebryakov is in love with himself, his pain and possibly Yelena: Astrov, complains about his age and his boredom as a country physician. Serebryakov announces his intention to sell the estate provoking Vanya. Vanya gets a gun, shoots and twice misses Serebryakov, adding to his humiliation and tries to steal enough morphine from Astrov to do himself in. All is settled, the visitors depart and from the chaos some form of normality and order begins to return. Vanya complains of a heavy heart and the weariness of this life, Sonya declares that the rewards they all deserve are in the afterlife and this life is just the vehicle to get them there. All in all it’s really just a storm in a samovar.
Oh yes the Russians know how to write a rip snorting, knee slapping comedy heavily tinged with as much tragedy as you can handle.
This adaptation by Andrew Upton of Chekov’s play is directed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who is one of the foremost interpreters of Chekhov of our times and who I am told does not speak a word of English (this may or may not be true). How does a (possibly) non-English speaking Hungarian direct a non-Hungarian English speaking cast in one of the great plays of Russia? Easy if you accept that most of what Chekhov has written is actually never spoken; “if Shakespeare is about the words then Chekhov is about the silences.”
Ascher’s one direction to Upton, while he was doing the adaptation was to keep it simple, keep it true to the original comedy that Chekhov had written, in this seemingly simple task Upton has largely succeeded. Upton has set the play in the mid 1950s, mainly I suspect to provide ‘Our Cate’ with a range of rather ‘glam’ costumes, designed by Gyorgyi Szakacs that offer a splash of old Hollywood.
Weaving and Roxburgh are the winners, at least among the males, in this production; each one of them seems to luxuriate in the character, enjoying the silences with which Chekhov fills his works, especially in the third and fourth acts. Both of them seem to be hitting the peak of their performing careers, both showing a willingness to let the play work its magic rather than forcing the ‘acting.’ Oh to have seen either of these two actors in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’
Also special mention should be made of Anthony Phelan as Telegin, Phelan is one of those supporting actors whose work is so consistently high that he often goes unnoticed on the stage allowing others to shine and it is a shame because he is one of the better actors that Australia has produced.
Now to the femmes: Jackie Weaver is, whether she intends it or not, a scene stealer, her underplaying, her dry comic sense of timing and flat delivery never leaves you wondering why she is there and god help any lazy performer on stage with her. Sandy Gore is given very little to do as the dotty and not so doting mother, what she is given she does well.
And so we come to Cate, I am ambivalent about her performance. She certainly looks the part even though she is slightly too old to be playing the twenty-five year old Yelena. When she is on stage it is hard to take your eyes off her, she is a strikingly beautiful woman and her performance is certainly energetic when needed and her voice has great colour and depth but does she hit the mark? I’ll get shot for this but in the end she doesn’t quite pull it off. She’s good, very good in fact, but in this company she does not shine as brightly as some of the others.
Ultimately it was a real pleasure to see Uncle Vanya played for the laughs that it was written for, rather than the heavy handed tragedy it has sometimes become and because of that it allowed the sadness and pathos of these lives to come through.
I doubt any of you have read this far but if you have and if you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket and get along to see this show – you will not be sorry.
Uncle Vanya plays at the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd., until 1 January 2011.