July 25, 2012
The thwarted, self-pitying, provincial Russians in this “Uncle Vanya” turn out to be quite a wild and crazy bunch, even engaging in a drunken pillow fight.
Definitely not your grandmother’s Chekhov.
Instead of the typical drained and melancholy atmosphere, with the characters’ frustrations expressed through indirection and a muted wistfulness, the Sydney Theatre Company revival at the New York City Center, starring Cate Blanchett, explodes with antic comedy.
“Uncle Vanya” has always had humor lurking around the edges, as each character struggles with disappointment, mostly due to unrequited love.
This production, dazzlingly directed by Tamas Ascher, working with a robust adaptation by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband), takes the humor, physicalizes it and pulls it to center stage.
The presentation, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, flirts with farce, but never crosses the line. The characters’ swoops and lunges, their pratfalls, the moments when they pull the covers over their heads, suggest discomfort as the great human comedy.
The setting has been moved from the turn to the middle of the 20th century and, with the cast’s pronounced Australian accents, you can easily forget we’re supposed to be in Russia, although that hardly matters.
The dreary routine of a dilapidated estate — rendered as truly dismal, with grimy walls and torn upholstery, in Zsolt Khell’s set — is disrupted by the arrival of its absentee owner, Serebryakov (John Bell), a pompous retired professor, and his elegant, much younger wife, Yelena.
Vanya, the brother of Serebryakov’s first wife, has struggled to keep the estate afloat, with the assistance of Serebryakov’s plain-looking daughter, Sonya.
Played by Richard Roxburgh with a combination of passion, bitterness and goofiness, Vanya is an oddly touching figure, even as he keeps moaning about how life has passed him by.
The only spark in his existence is his one-sided love for Yelena, a bored, self-involved woman who nonetheless is a faithful wife. In Blanchett’s witty performance, Yelena is also very human: volatile and uncertain, hurtling between icy and kittenish, knowing and confused.
Also in love with her is Astrov, the alcoholic, motorcycle-riding local doctor, portrayed with a certain dash by Hugo Weaving.
Astrov is loved, in turn, by Sonya, whose deep but hopeless feeling is rendered with an affecting mix of girlishness and dignity by Hayley McElhinney.
Although Blanchett is the production’s big name, this is truly an ensemble piece, with everyone blending in a single universe and the evening’s impact coming both from individual performances and the characters’ interactions.
For a while in this “Uncle Vanya,” the physical humor seems to be overshadowing the play’s poignancy. But the piteousness has been lurking underneath all along.
And at the end, with Serebryakov and Yelena having left and Sonya returning to work with Vanya on the drudgery of the account books, as they face long and empty years, her words to him on the rewards of the afterlife are as moving as ever: “Our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. … In your life, you haven’t known what joy was. But wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. … We shall rest.”