Chekov. Bell. Blanchett. Gore. Roxburgh. Weaver. Weaving. Not to mention Anthony Phelan and relative newcomer Hayley McElhinney (hey, I said relative). Can you go wrong? Not really. Well, certainly not far. But let’s begin at the beginning.
Uncle Vanya has been adapted for the Australian stage by STC co-artistic director Andrew Upton. As I can’t lay claim to knowing the text back-to-front, it’s hard to know just what Upton’s contribution means. Certainly, Zsolt Khell’s set, constructed of old, damp, imposing timbers which, despite their heavy immovability, look set to topple, would appear to differ from the rather more picturesque stage directions in the English translation. There’s a bleakness, from the beginning. But then there are the conterpointed lighter touches, after Chekov, like a tall, 60s Corningware coffee-pot, in lieu of a samovar. Maybe touches like this were at Upton’s urging, as well as a more generalised Aussification, very largely epitomised in the broad dialectical speech of lovable, old nurse, Marina (Jackie Weaver) and the professor’s daughter, Sonya (McElhinney). We may never know. And perhaps we need not.
Speaking of accents brings me, early on, to attempt to answer the question I posed, above. Can you go wrong, with such a stellar writer and cast, to say nothing of the Chekov director’s Chekov director, a man with a heritage echoing my own, Hungarian Tamas Ascher? Yes, a little. While it was probably to denote varying levels of education, status and class, it was perplexing to hear, on the one hand, the elongated utterances of Marina, as against the rich, round, European (for want of a better descriptor) sophistication of Yelena (Blanchett). More confusing still was, though Weaving and Roxburgh could be mistaken for Russians who’d stayed a little too long in, say, Dubbo, at first, their characters seemed to warp into the more deliberate elocution sported by the prof (Bell), at times. In other words, there was a certain amount of distracting to-ing and fro-ing in this respect.
The only other quibble was that Weaving seemed, perhaps, a little nervous, at least to begin with. That’s if the shuffling of his feet was anything to go by. It was as if he was about to break into spontaneous rendition of Riverdance. If it was intended to make his character seem all the more exuberant, it seemed a little overdone, especially next to the understated elegance of Blanchett, who so effortlessly achieves that rare submergence and transformation of carefully-conceived, meticulously-nuanced craft into a convincing deception of naturalness. Every tiny movement is fit to a purpose and she rarely fails to persuade. As my companion observed: ‘it’s easy to see why she’s considered great’: she imbues her character with all the haughty sophistication and nobility she has assumed in more regal roles, yet knows just how and when to reveal vulnerabilities, making for an intriguing, mysterious portrayal of true-to-life complexity.
Aside from a reverse makeover, relegating her to a grey, rotund dowdiness, Jackie Weaver is very much Jackie Weaver, as Marina: sweet and lovable; as with Roxburgh, no getup or character can conceal such prodigious, idiosyncratic charisma and magnetism. Roxburgh can’t help but command attention on stage, every bit as much as on film or television: he doesn’t need the close proximity of a camera to draw you in. And his capacity to fulfil the pendulous demands of Chekov’s challenging integration of the comedic and tragic is almost profound in itself: are those tears real, or feigned? Who can tell? And therein lies the beauty and art of it.
Weaving, ignoring his Fosseness, is every bit as big, bold and supersized as the good doctor ought to be: larger than life and living every bit of it in true Russian, nothing exceeds like excess, style. He bowls you over with his booming voice, which could probably be heard across the road at STC HQ if he desired it so. And, when one considers the diversity of his roles over the years, one can’t help but be impressed by his sheer versatility; his preparedness to inhabit almost any role and to fill any pair of shoes.
John Bell is, as always, the actor’s actor, the elder statesman of Australian theatre (even a little before his time), rightly revered and respected and, like the others, impeccably cast. Like Weaving, one could listen to him all day and night. Even reading the Yellow Pages. Let’s face it, he’s our answer to Gielgud or Richardson.
The same kind of reverence must surely be afforded for Sandy Gore’s distinctively warm, meltingly chocolate vocal personality and, as the utterly pathetic and credulous Maria, mother of Vanya and the professor’s first wife, she is suitably painful and cringeworthy; a classically affirmative case for the volition of Dr Nitschke.
Anthony Phelan is so heavily made-up and effective as the pitiable pauper, Telegin, for all intents and purposes he is a Russian peasant. In many ways, his characterisation is the most traditionally Chekovian; the only problem with that being it puts him out of step with the rather more modern, laissez-faire reading of, say, Vanya. To that extent, I have to question Ascher’s intent and judgment, audacious as that may be.
Hayley McElhinney was, very arguably, the most consistent performer: having committed to a broad Australian accent, she stuck with it. And she is every bit as luminous and commanding as any of her counterparts, mustering all the heart and soul written so lavishly and lovingly into her role.
It might be my imagination, but I sensed something of a competitive camaraderie between Weaving and Roxburgh, which may or may not exist, or to which they may or may not admit. In any event, if present, it was a positive attribute which served to sharpen Ascher’s blade.
Gyorgi Szakacs costumes and Khell’s set work hand-in-glove, aesthetically, and present an original vision which underscores and resonates loudly with the dark, despairing hopelessness of Chekov’s making.
There will be purists, I’ll wager, that will rail against this production, but there’s something quintessentially ‘she’ll be right’ about this adaptation: the blowflies, humidity and woolstore architecture relocating it, even if this decision is, here and there, confounded by the sheer Russian-ness, which seeps unstoppably through, from historical wounds that may never heal. So it’s a question of whether you’ll feel like a Toohey or two. Or a Stoli or six. Nevertheless, I kinda like the brassy, roughshod approach, even if the in-joke Shakespearean interpolations are a bit gimmicky.
I’ve spent some time on negatives, but merely to isolate them quickly and, I hope, precisely, for this is, overwhelmingly, a worthy and memorable Vanya, with a style, or character all its own. A colourful, larrikin character. Inasmuch, plaudits, or damnation, must go to Upton, Ascher and cast.
Who could pretend not to be awed by the lineup? And I’m pleased to report the awe borne of anticipation, the awe before, is very much mirrored by commensurate awe during and after. After all, perhaps the flaws and foibles are art’s way of imitating the not-so-magic carpet ride of life Chekov strives to depict. All things considered, a big, high note on which to wrap the 2010 season. I (can’t) wait, with bated breath, for 2011.
Sydney Theatre Company and Goldman Sachs in association with Bell Shakespeare present
by Anton Chekhov | adapted by Andrew Upton
Director Tamás Ascher
Venue: Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay
Previews: 9 – 12 November 7.30pm
Dates: 13 November 2010 – 1 January 2011
Duration: 2 Hours 45 Minutes, Including Interval