July 22, 2012
Theatergoers who’ve come to think of Anton Chekhov’s work as either static or preciously delicate will have their preconceptions dashed with Hungarian director Tanás Acher’s ludicrously comedic, intensely physical staging of Uncle Vanya for Sydney Theatre Company, now at New York City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival .
In this often galvanizing production, the boredom that the characters feel as they endure life on a decaying estate in rural Russia leads not only to the gunshots that the playwright calls for, but also playful pillow fights, unexpected slaps, and amorous fumblings, simultaneously funny and pitiable, that he might never have imagined.
And, thanks to an exceptional company, headed by Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh, this show simply stuns from beginning to end as this bittersweet comedy, intriguingly reset in what seems to be 1950s Russia, unfolds.
Blanchett plays Yelena, the second — and much younger — wife of an aging professor (brought to life with brutal bitterness by John Bell), who has come to the estate to live out his retirement. Normally played as a somewhat delicate flower to whom both Vanya (Roxburgh) and Astrov (Hugo Weaving), the doctor who attends to the capricious professor, are irresistibly attracted, Yelena here is a creature, who, in her frustration with her existence has become an almost feral being.
Blanchett’s Yelena may look like a cool beauty in the white shirt dress from costume designer Györgyi Szakács as she enters. But once the character has attempted to settle into a dilapidated lounge chair (just one of the terrific details in Zsolt Khell’s rustic scenic design that seems to imply the place has been raided by the Soviets) to read a paperback, the pestering gnats (distinctly heard in Paul Charlier’s evocative soundscape) and the droning and bickering of the family sets her on distinct, brittle, and even unattractive edge.
It’s little wonder that Yelena later starts downing late night vodka shots with her stepdaughter Sonya (imbued with a harsh forthrightness by Hayley McElhinney), as the two share a tete a tete, in which both confess their unhappiness about their lots in life, and Sonya admits that she carries a deep love for Astrov.. Before the scene ends, the two are flailing one another with pillows, giggling like school girls, and darting in and out from underneath a blanket that becomes something of a makeshift tent for their playtime together. It’s an utterly beguiling and unexpected moment.
Moreover, when Weaving’s charismatic, spiky and yet, somehow emotionally disconnected Astrov says that he and Vanya are “the only two decent, intelligent men in the district,” audiences cannot help but concur. Both actors also share a distinctly volcanic chemistry with Blanchett, particularly Weaving — whose work opposite her has a steamy awkwardness to it that’s as tantalizing as it is humorous.
Further, when Astrov waxes eloquent about the forests that he’s committed to preserving for generations to come, Weaving’s performance has a remarkably zealous incandescence, which is ironically undercut by Ascher’s choice to set the play at the height of the Cold War. One can’t help but sense with sadness the almost impossibility of Astrov’s vision for the future, knowing the hardships that lie in wait for the characters and the world.