All this excitement is, ironically, about the opportunity of watching an unhappily blended family of hopeful losers mope about a rural house procrastinating, whinging and bickering. The play is a display case of lassitude and human failure; it reads as if Samuel Beckett rewrote The Brady Bunch with a hangover. Its pathetic climax occurs in Act 3 (normal for Chekhov, allowing an entire final Act for recriminations and regrets), after the doddering Professor Serebryakov (John Bell) announces he’s planning to sell the house, whereupon the biggest loser, Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) fires a gun at him (offstage). Does this sound like a dramatic masterpiece? When we questioned STC’s artistic directors about how Chekhov could write one of the greatest modern plays with no direct effective action or heroic attributes, they defended his characters vigorously.
"They’re wonderful!" says Andrew Upton, who adapted the 1897 text from a literal translation. Upton treats Chekhov’s characters with the same love and care that Dr Chekhov gave to his tubercular patients. Upton’s adaptations of Russian classics have been the foundation of some of the most celebrated productions of London’s National Theatre in recent years, including The White Guard, which the STC will stage in June 2011. His version of The Cherry Orchard, which the STC staged in 2005 with Robyn Nevin, will be relayed in HD from London to Sydney’s Dendy Cinemas in July 2011.
Cate Blanchett, who plays the younger wife of the almost-murdered Professor, is no less enamoured of the characters. "I think all of Chekhov’s characters are wonderfully flawed. He always writes with such humanity about tragic situations, but he’s a great comedian."
Indeed, Chekhov did call his plays comedies, though their morose mood has become his trademark. "It’s laughing through the tears," Blanchett explains. The mood in the rehearsal room, she says, is overwhelmingly positive. "I think all of the actors have wonderful clowns in them as well as being able to access deep pathos. In the end, for me as an actor, it’s about who you’re in conversation with, and Chekhov always gives us these sprawling, far-reaching conversations, so to be in dialogue with those guys, for an actor it’s a dream."
So where does she want the audience to come out after seeing the performance? "I would hope that they’ve experienced deep sadness and absolute hilarity, and have fallen in and out of love with all the characters (often simultaneously!) in the course of the evening." As Chekhov wrote in one of his many short stories: "How strange… why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice, kind eyes, to weak, unhappy useless people – and why are they so attractive?