Thursday, November 25, 2010

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov.  Adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Tam├ís Ascher.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre, November 9 – December 23, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

November 24

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

Despite the success of the first production by Moscow Art Theatre of Uncle Vanya in 1899, I like to imagine that Konstantin Stanislavsky was troubled.  He had not wanted to play the role of the doctor, Mihail Lvovich Astrov “for I had always dreamt of another part – the title role.  But [director] Vladimir Ivanovich managed to break my will and even got me to like Astrov.”

In Ascher’s production, I think Stanislavski’s troubles are over.  Considering he died in 1938, you may think it’s a bit late.  But there’s 111 years of theatrical history behind Ascher’s and Upton’s work, and it shows to perfection in the performances of top-class actors Hugo Weaving (today’s Astrov), Richard Roxburgh (Vanya), Cate Blanchett (Yelena), Hayley McElhinney (Sonya), John Bell (Serebryakov), Jacki Weaver (Nanny), Sandy Gore (Maria), Anthony Phelan (Telegin) and Andrew Tighe (Labourer).

Stanislavski also directed Chekov’s works and in the 1920s and 30s focussed on training actors to perform ‘naturalism’.  His work was the key to making the break from melodrama to the form of drama the 20th Century needed.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone got his ‘system’ right.  I think we were lucky in Australia, from the time of the early NIDA classes and Hayes Gordon, to eschew the ‘American Method’ of Lee Strasbourg. 

Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya   
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

Australians, being perhaps less sentimental than Americans, knew that when Stanislavski said act ‘as if’ you were the character, he never meant ‘become’ the character.  This cast, with this director, backed by their Australian training and experience, demonstrated exactly what Stanislavski meant.  I suspect, too, they also ‘got’ Chekov better than Stanislavski himself had achieved in 1899.

The clue is the fun in this presentation.  Here is the humourist Chekov we know from his short stories and plays like The Proposal.  Weaving skips and even Russian dances about the stage.  Roxburgh swings and sways from gloom to fury, from lust to murderous intent.  The two of them reminded me of Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Roger Rees (Vladimir) in the recent production of Waiting for Godot – the same understanding of the absurdity of the social condition.

One might imagine that the young wife of the old fart professor, so imbued in boredom, would be waspish or merely sad.  Not this Yelena.  Blanchett collapses into unbridled laughter as often as she is the worst manipulator.  And who would have thought that the professor’s horribly put-upon daughter could lose herself so freely in laughter and take the audience along with her, especially in McElhinney’s marvellous scene with Blanchett in Act Two. 

And John Bell at last is free of the constraints he seems to have laid upon himself in recent years.  Compare his Lear with this pretentious old Serebyakov, and Chekov looks better than Shakespeare.

But how is this not mere farce or melodrama?  Because every actor plays their character’s intention behind every facial twitch, every loose movement, every eye contact, every incomprehensible vocalisation, every word which means the opposite of its apparent meaning, or diverts attention away from reality.  As Stanislavsky taught, nothing must happen on stage without the audience being aware of each character’s intention.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was missed in this production.

A simple demonstration, but a most exciting moment in the play, was the silence after Yelena and Astrov realise that Vanya, bringing roses for her, has seen them kissing.  Such wonderful theatre in which no-one says anything for minutes on end.  My copy of the script has just four dots to indicate no more than a pause before Astrov says [with bravado] ‘The weather is not too bad today.’  On this stage, with this director and these actors, what tension was there – and what laughter from us watching this embarrassed triangle.  What a creation of the illusion of natural reality!  What honour to a master playwright.  What grateful thanks on my part for the skill and artistry of this company.

What a pity for so many of you that the season is fully booked.

Sandy Gore and Richard Roxburgh in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

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