Hungarian Director Has
Aussie Stars Laughing Uncle
By Anton Chekhov, adapted by Andrew Upton
Sydney Theatre Company, Eisenhower Theatre, John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, August 16, 2010, A–9&11 (left balcony)
Directed by Tamas Ascher
I recall reading that Tennessee Williams used to sit at the back of the theater watching his plays and laugh at the characters he created struggling to get through life. Anton Chekhov gets the audience to laugh at his struggling characters, as well.
At least that’s the case with Uncle Vanya as presented by the Sydney Theatre Company, under the direction of Hungarian Tamas Ascher, a specialist in staging Chekhov plays. While the production elicited as many laughs as any good sitcom, much of it through the lines and situations but some slapstick, too, this, nevertheless, was as depressing a play as any the Russian masters could muster.
Funny yet depressing, and exhilarating, too, thanks to the brilliant acting under Ascher’s expert guidance. The cast comprised a few of the top talents of Australia’s rich acting community, some of whom have garnered Hollywood gold.
The centerpiece star was Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as Yelena, perfectly coifed and luminous in timelessly classic dresses and suits (the play’s setting was, I guess, “nowadays” as some of the estate’s residents had a Fiddler on the Roof appearance, Dr. Astrov wore a muted vest and tie along with modern brown leather jacket, and Yelena could have stepped out of a 1947 fashion catalog or a 2011 Nordstrom). Blanchett was an actress mastering the minutest details: the way she moved her hands nervously when her lust for Astrov rose in her; the way she stood tall in the presence of her husband, Serebyakov, and slumped in boredom when he wasn’t around; the way she awkwardly caressed her stepdaughter, Sonya, but tenderly kissed Vanya’s forehead at the end. Blanchett’s Yelena ran hot and cold in her relationships with the other characters, the plunge in temperature sometimes coming in mere seconds. This was especially so with Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) and, to a greater degree, Astrov (Hugo Weaving). She flirted with the former and could hardly keep her hands off the latter, but the moment each reciprocated she turned against them. Not the kind of person we should have sympathy for, but Blanchett made her sympathetic, all the same. She also made Yelena funny, especially during her soliloquy about her growing passion for Astrov, spoken while leaning against a door Sonya suddenly opened behind her, causing Yelena to sprawl backward into the other room.
Another Oscar nominee in the cast was Jacki Weaver as Marina, totally unrecognizable as an old nurse living on the estate. She and Anthony Phelan’s Telegin, another of the estate’s dependencies, were both second-tier characters, but in them alone lived unequivocal goodness and service. Meanwhile, Roxburgh's Vanya roared through the play with real passion, especially in his climactic trio of heartbreaking scenes: coming upon Yelena and Astrov embracing, attempting to murder his brother-in-law Serebryakov, and giving up the bottle of morphine he stole from Astrov.
But for all the star power and the titular character's succession of crises, for me the play’s emotional center was Sonya. Hayley McElhinney played Serebryakov’s daughter in many shades: the efficient housekeeper, the wary stepdaughter gradually warming to Yelena’s shallow overtures, the “plain” girl with a six-year crush on Astrov. After Vanya failed to kill Serebryakov despite shooting from point-blank range and is soon after waylaid from his own suicide, McElhinney’s Sonya got the estate back to working order, returning to her efficient ways though her own heartbreak was yet palpable. There was more fear than comfort in her assuring Vanya that peace and rest would come at the end of their hard lives. Underneath her assurances was the truth that, as her uncle was 47, her own hard life and its unrequited loves were bound to last much longer than his.
John Bell played Serebryakov as prim, proper and cold, self-absorbed to the extreme and totally unaware that other human beings were in the room, let alone in his life (well, they were in the room, but they were bothers, not beings). How does such a man hold so much sway over everybody else? His mother-in-law Maria (Sandy Gore) doted on him because she’s infatuated with his learned ways, which Yalena herself admitted was the thing that first attracted her to him (but I tend to agree with Vanya that Serebryakov’s learned ways are all show and no substance). Yalena was now bored as his wife, but given the opportunity at an affair with Astrov she declined, choosing to remain faithful to her husband. Sonya had to love Serebryakov out of filial duty. Vanya, after recognizing that he’s spent 24 years in a subsistent existence in order to feed Serebryakov’s lifestyle, finally stood up to his brother-in-law; but he took it too far, and after the failed murder, he gave in wholly, promising to continue managing the estate and providing Serebryakov full payment.
I certainly feel for Vanya’s despair and weakness. But I don’t feel Serebryakov is worth what everybody puts themselves through.
August 18, 2011