The responsibility of reviewing is something I take very seriously. Especially when a production is highly anticipated — whether because of its star power, status as a classic, creative team’s calibre, or all of these — does the task of critiquing it become daunting.
Even more so when it exceeds expectations and you wish to do it justice.
On top of that, there comes a slight feeling of guilt at raving about a production, exhorting people to see it at all costs, knowing that remaining tickets are scarce. That for many a ‘must-see’ will only engender feelings of unfairness, of having missed out, of resentment, of jealousy, of despair, of ‘if only’.
Which brings me to Uncle Vanya — utterly superb and the quintessence of regret.
Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), aided by his niece Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), has run the declining estate of Professor Serebryakov (John Bell) for years, sacrificing his own youth and chances of accomplishment and happiness in the process.
When Serebryakov and his stunning young wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett) return to the estate, Vanya’s frustration is heightened — by his love for Yelena, and also by his belief that, years ago, he had the chance to have Yelena himself and missed his opportunity. There seems nothing left for Vanya. He has squandered his life.
“I’m 47!” Vanya laments, tormented by thoughts of up to 13 more years of this wasted existence before death claims him. Although Roxburgh’s moan was met with much laughter from the Boomer-heavy audience, his distress was palpable and uncomfortably relatable, even through the chuckles.
Vanya isn’t the only one yearning, though. Both Yelena and Sonya are drawn to Astrov (Hugo Weaving), the local doctor, who himself is floundering in the remote community. One of the original ‘greenies’, Astrov waxes lyrical about the ruin of his country’s natural resources as he fails to make the most of his own.
With this much existential angst, and this much vodka, emotions are bound to erupt.
Adapted from Chekhov’s 1899 classic, Sydney Theatre Company’s Andrew Upton has crafted a sensitive, Australianised take that loses none of its humour, humanity and power.
A Hungarian theme runs through the creative team, fronted by leading Chekhov director Tamás Ascher. It adds up to one of the most impressive collaborations in recent memory.
Although titled after a single character, Uncle Vanya is a supreme ensemble piece, comprising a cast of truly stellar quality. Weaving exudes charisma as the flawed doctor, inhabiting the space with oblivious charm. Blanchett, as ever, commands attention and awe as she restlessly prowls about in gorgeous costumes.
Bell’s irascible Professor frustrates and amuses, influencing events even when hidden from view. Add Jacki Weaver, Sandy Gore, Anthony Phelan and Andrew Tigue, and there is never a flat moment or lull.
But highest praise goes to Roxburgh and McElhinney. Both balance comedy, pathos and passion magnificently. Sonya’s final plea to Vanya to remain patient and wait for his ‘reward’, her desperate desire to have him believe that better things lie ahead, is astounding. McElhinney’s fraught, wild gaze as she clutches onto Roxburgh’s anguished frame remains in the memory long after the final encore.
Framed by a set of incredible depth, detail and versatility, Uncle Vanya is the high point of an extraordinary season. Should you be fortunate enough to witness this production, you shall indeed hear angels … and see the sky sparkling with diamonds.