Sunday, July 22, 2012

Uncle Vanya: Obsession

It turns out I could stare into Cate Blanchett's face all day.  She's well cast as the "beautiful sleek ferret" Yelena, the object of everyone's affections in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.  Emotions melt across her serene face and the longer you look the more you seem to see.  Like a portal into another galaxy, I felt if I kept staring into it the mysteries of the universe might be unlocked.  Beyond beauty (which she has in spades), it's the transparency of her emotional readiness that makes her so compelling to watch.  The readiness which tears well up in the corners of her eyes and how quickly emotions ebb and flow.

What's most remarkable is that she's not even the best thing about this production.  And to quote Mary Poppins, she's practically perfect in every way.

From witty direction, to a comedic and revelatory adaptation, to stunning and heart-breaking performances by Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, and Hayley McElhinney, this Australian offering, which is part of the Lincoln Center Festival, brings a bounty of theatrical treats to the New York stage.

Vanya (Roxburgh) and his niece Sonya (McElhinney) slave away to preserve the family estate for the benefit of Sonya's father a respected Professor (John Bell) and his new wife Yelena (Blanchett).  The family servants Marina (completely unrecognizable from her bone-chilling turn in Animal Kingdom, Jacki Weaver) and Waffles (Anthony Phelan) do what they can to assist.  The Professor, suffering from gout, makes unreasonable demands upon the household and upends the quiet but difficult lives of his dead wife's family.  Layered on top of this are love affairs waiting to boil over with the summer heat.  Plain but good Sonya is secretly in love with visiting doctor Astrov (Weaving).  Vanya is driven wild for Yelena who unlocks something long dead inside him. Yelena finds herself drawn to Astrov.

Hungarian Street Art Meets Russian Symbolism
As @GratuitousV pointed out on twitter, if it's Russian it must involve a  "feuding intellectual family, decaying aristocracy...[a] dilapidated country house and lots of vodka."  She's right on all counts. But what makes this production so different is that those external elements are all there but they take a backseat to a more contemporary emotional interpretation.*

The adaptation by Sydney Theatre Company's co-director Andrew Upton brings to the light the characters' obsessions with each other measured against the paralyzing feeling that none of them see the path ahead. But Upton's version is not trapped in some Russian Orthodox relic of the past but instead it is a vital and urgent contemporary understanding of those themes.  There is little of the usual mopey Russian depression (Coast of Utopia anyone).  Despite a heavy story it is delivered with great lightness, mostly through humor.  It becomes a darkly comedic take that feels more Czech** to me than Russian. 

Hungarian Absurdism
Here, Upton's Vanya is a man who has dedicated his life to serving the Professor.  First it was out of love for his sister who married the Professor.  As a burgeoning intellectual, it was also out of respect for the Professor's esteemed intellect.  Later, Vanya maintains this commitment on behalf of his niece.  He has made countless sacrifices and when his dedication, love, and obedience are taken for granted and practically thrown back in his face he does not accept it and will not endure it quietly.

By the end of the play I just wanted to lay down at the altar of Richard Roxburgh and be slayed because frankly I'll never see anything as good as that again.  At all times, he appeared to be teetering on a tiny ledge between laughter and tears. It felt as if, at any moment, he might burst into sobs because he was feeling too much.  Roxburgh showed Vanya was acutely aware of his own situation: the ridiculousness of his puppy-like love for Yelena, his foolish dedication to this forgotten academic, and what he had given up for all of this.  Yet, even knowing this he demonstrates that he must keep going because this hope and this potential was all he had to hold onto.  Roxburgh's eyes sparkled as he delivered his comic lines finding perverse glee in his own absurdities and tragedy.  He's devastating to watch because you are seeing a man reborn, believing in the future, of the possibilities of a life with Yelena, and love. When he sees that that will not be possible, you see Roxburgh emotionally collapse before your eyes and physically return to the broken man he has been for years.  Roxburgh does this all with grace and subtlety.  It's a stunning performance and one that might ruin all Vanyas for me for all time.  There were about six curtain calls at the performance I attended.  Roxburgh was still wiping tears from his eyes throughout them.

Weaving was great as the object of Yelena's affections.  Much like the sex scene in Cock, the wooing scene between Astrov and Yelena with all of Blanchett's frenetic energy  was steamy even without touching.  Weaving managed to exude sexual prowess even if the topic of the conversation was trees.  Never has deforestation been so erotic.  Though I guess between the man who loves forests and the man who loves books, I was rooting for Vanya and could not quite grasp why even as handsome as he was Astrov would be the one to lure Yelena in. 

Hayley McElhinney manages to portray Sonya as childlike in an effective, moony way without "acting" like a child.  Her blind affection and fantasy love for Astrov is believable as a sheltered teen. 

Hungarian director Tam├ís Ascher stages the play with incredible wit.  The actors when they are not speaking have physical expressions of their character's emotional state.  At some point Yelena responds to a quip by Vanya, I believe, by skipping. There is an incredibly tiny chair that Sonya sits on showing her as the infantilized woman.  When Yelena stops hearing her husband snore and she thinks he may be dead, she rushes across the room only to have him start up a moment before she gets to him.  She must then cover her panic and Blanchett does so with hilarious physical comedy.  Even the key scene where Vanya takes action against the Professor, his character's impotence is comically performed.  These moments throughout the play illustrate the thoughtful directing choices being made.  The direction upends expectations and reveals new facets to the characters and the play.

This production constantly takes moments of lightness and juxtaposes them against moments of real devastation.  The tragedy becomes richer because it is played for laughs.  Nothing in these characters lives is remotely funny but with the sardonic edge in Upton's adaptation, the smart direction and the consummate professionals interpreting these characters the dark comedy is perfectly delivered. The director and writer have trusted the audience will understand the tragedy without having to "play" it for tragedy.  It's a refreshing approach even if you'll be sobbing by the end.  Good tears, well-earned. 

*I felt similarly about Upton's adaptation of Hedda Gabler in 2006.  I connected to the characters in a way that I had not before.  With that production (again starring Upton's wife Blanchett), I was able to find that emotional link.  My friend and I turned to each other at the end of Hedda Gabler and said "yeah I feel like I've been in that relationship before."  I mean we haven't really, but there were shades of those dynamics that felt very real to us.

**I've often noticed a recurrent theme of absurdism in Czech art and cinema.  Because the director is Hungarian it is possible that there is also a tinge of absurdism in Hungarian art as well but I'm not as familiar with contemporary Hungarian cinema, theatre and art.

Wholly unrelated, I've spent quite a bit of time in Budapest and it's maybe one of my favorite places on earth.  You should go there.  It's falling down.  I love it.


  1. Thank you! In reflecting on how the light would dance across her exquisite cheekbones, then coyly disappear in the hollow of her throat, I had quite forgotten how surprised I was at Cate Blanchett's physical comedy chops. I'd expect her to be Noel Coward clever funny, but I would never have imagined her as a dab hand with a pratfall. Now I want her to star in a remake of The Gold Rush.

  2. This was my first Uncle Vanya, my first Chekhov play, and it wasn't entirely successful for me. First, I was in the back of the orchestra at City Center and I really strained to hear during Act I. I think this is the biggest theatre I've ever been in for a play that didn't have amplified sound. Also, I wanted to go in cold so I didn't even read the summary in the program, which was a mistake.

    But Act II was much better. I could hear better. I read the summary so I knew who everyone was and their relationships. Cate Blanchett is stunning but I was so moved by Richard Roxburgh and Hayley McElhinney. They were both heart-wrenching, to the point that the attempts at injecting humor seemed inappropriate. I didn't find anything funny in their plight, in their feelings of being unappreciated and unloved.