Dysfunctional families, sexual frustration, job burnout, existential angst, depression, environmentalism, vegetarianism, all the subjects of the play “Uncle Vanya”. I have a conversation in the inevitable line to the Ladie’s room with two ladies I don’t know, about how this play, first published in 1897, feels so contemporary. But you see, Anton Chekhov wrote about the human condition, and whether you were in the Russian country side in the late 1890’s, or are in an American city in 2011, we still and always will love, hate, despair and rage.
The wonderful Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Uncle Vanya” showcases its two big movie stars, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, but they truly are only part of a talented ensemble of Australian actors. We come in on a country estate and family owners and retainers whose routine has been disturbed by the arrival of their now retired family intellectual and success, Serebryakov (John Bell), and his second and younger wife, glamorous Yelena (Cate Blanchett). This disturbance stirs up all sorts of passions in the household that includes Sereryakov’s adult daughter by his first marriage, Sonya (Hayley McElthinney), annoying mother-in –law (Sandy Gore), and brother-in-law, depressed and lonely Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh). To this mix is added country doctor and environmentalist, Astrov (Hugo Weaving).
There are also unseen characters in this play, the poor peasants and workers that are Astrov's patients, and the dead first wife of Serebryakov and beloved sister of Vanya's.
There are very funny and very moving moments that often weave into each other, like it happens in real life. Cate Blanchett channels the glamorous 1930’s Hollywood movie stars as a bored woman of privilege, stuck in a loveless marriage with an old man. Her interactions with Vanya (Roxburgh) and Astrov (Weaving) as the two men who fall in love with her, with different measures of success, are powerful yet subtle. I can’t decide if Yelena is a master manipulator of the men in her life, or is a victim of a society’s expectations. I especially liked Blanchett’s scenes with plain stepdaughter Sonya (McElthinney) and their reaching out for friendship and understanding in each other. They are both frustrated with the selfish and egotistic husband and father Serebryakov . Ultimately they can’t maintain a happy relationship. Hayley McElthinney’s performance as Sonya builds from quiet and almost unnoticed, to the heart and hope of the play.
The men are equally strong, especially Roxburgh and Weaving. Roxburgh as Vanya is funny, charming, and so very depressed. He feels his life has been for nothing and his work has gone to support the empty shell that is his brother-in-law. In the year’s I've watched Hugo Weaving on screen I can’t say I’ve ever thought of him as a leading man, but he’s magnetic on stage as Astrov. The good doctor likes his vodka a little too much, and is also dissatisfied with his work and life. But his lectures on deforestation and the dangers to the environment are very contemporary. Since Chekhov was a doctor, you do wonder in all this talk, if Astrov is the playwright's own voice. Poor kind and gentle Sonya loves Astrov, but he claims he can love no one. Both Vanya and Astrov are besotted with Blanchett’s Yelena with sad results for all.
The Hungarian director of the play, Tamas Ascher is described in Playbill as “one of the foremost Chekhov interpreters of our time." The play was adapted by Andrew Upton, co-artistic director of STC with his wife Cate Blanchett. This wonderful production has a seamless mix of humor and tragedy and all the characters felt to me like people I could encounter in my own life today.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya will be at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington DC until August 27.
Oh, and thank you Sir Ian McKellen for letting us know about the play coming to DC on your blog back in the spring.