Richard Roxburgh (Vanya) and Cate Blanchett (Yelena) in Uncle Vanya, Sydney Theater Company (photo by Lisa Tomasetti)
The cast was outstanding, an ensemble that had movie stars in it, but they did not draw attention to themselves. Indeed, they were often outshone by their less famous counterparts, especially Richard Roxburgh's Vanya, filled with both heart-crushing regret and biting resentment. This Vanya was likely to switch emotional gears on a dime, including bursting into tears, but the play was never swamped by these occasional bouts of emotional anguish. As Roxburgh told PBS in an interview, all too often Chekhov is done with "too many leaden silences, like Noël Coward, but without the jokes." This production was an excellent reminder of the humor in Chekhov, without crossing that boundary into farce, and also of just how much can be contained in between Chekhov's spoken lines, the glances, the pauses, the movements, and gestures. A great example was the awkward final kiss between Yelena (Cate Blanchett, all platinum hair and out-of-place stylishness) and the country doctor Astrov (played with loose-limbed swagger and whimsical humor by Hugo Weaving), in which barely suppressed passion is mis-coordinated to the point of embarrassment. This was an ingenious decision since Astrov is a man so incapable of human attachment that the most heartfelt relationship he has in the play is with the family's old nurse, played with disarming simplicity by veteran actress Jacki Weaver.
Hungarian director Tamás Ascher has updated the story to an unspecified Soviet-era time, let's say the 1930s. The country house is a grimy Communist shack (sets by Zsolt Khell), with recordings of buzzing flies punctuating the silence in the early acts (sound and music by Paul Charlier), a drab and grim setting into which the snooty, complaining Professor Serebryakoff (a self-absorbed patrician John Bell) and his gorgeous young wife intrude. The country doctor rides around on a battered motorcycle instead of a horse, and the iconic watchman's rattle of the play's final scene -- the periodic noise to let the manor's owners know that he was still awake and on watch -- becomes the crackle and squeal of a transistor radio being tuned. (Period-appropriate music also fills the intermissions, jazz-tinged songs that are sentimental and zany -- think Shostakovich's The Golden Age.) As often happens, the Soviet-era updating played havoc, just slightly, with the relationships that lead to the plot's crisis: peasants, land owners, intelligentsia. Concerns over how profitable the estate can be seem not to fit with mid-20th century Russia, but then neither do the Australian accents. The strongest accent came with the other standout performance, from Hayley McElhinney, whose Sonya was so emotionally needy and neglected: seemingly trapped in childhood, she insisted on sitting on a toddler-sized chair more than once. As her father departed with Yelena, her stepmother, Serebryakoff finally seemed aware of his daughter's need for his love and still ignored it.
The updating goes hand in hand with a new edition of the play by Andrew Upton, which adds some four-letter words and some modern turns of phrase, simplifies some of the complexity of the Russian character names (Vanya is called so many other names by the other characters in the original), and removes some of the more complicated allusions in favor of (ill-placed) quotations from Shakespeare. Professor Serebryakoff keeps his pretentious Latin quotation, "omnis una manet nox," from Horace's Odes, I/28 (English translation -- roughly, "But one night awaits everyone / and each, in turn, treads the path of death"), but not all of the artistic and literary references survive. In Act IV, the servants' conversation about the Act III fight, includes the lines "What a storm they have raised!" / "A scene worthy of the brush of Aivazovsky." The latter line is changed to "a scene worthy of the stage," assuming that audiences would not get the reference to Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, a 19th-century Armenian-Russian painter whose style is similar to Turner, specializing in stormy seascapes and other scenes with swirling color in a watercolor-like wash.
Most of the allusions to Turgenev remain, whose evocation of nature and the Russian countryside in A Sportsman's Sketches (Vol. 1 | Vol. 2), Turgenev's observations of peasant life while hunting around his country estate, was an inspiration to Chekhov and so many other writers (also known for his novel Fathers and Sons). He and his brother, Nikolai, who wrote The Emancipation of the Russian Serfs, were sons of a wealthy landed family. A Russian couple behind me clucked their tongues at some of the changes, seeming to confirm with each other what had just been said in English and trying to line it up with the Russian text they had probably heard since they were children. One line from the play includes a Russian proverb, "È finita la commedia," a mangling of the phrase "La commedia è finita," used to signal the end of commedia dell'arte performances and perhaps best known from the conclusion of Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci. The STC version is perhaps not Chekhov, but it is compelling theater.
This production continues through August 27, but it is already sold out.