The Sydney Theatre Company has brought Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to the Kennedy Center for an exclusive three week run. Starring Cate Blanchett, co-artistic director of the company with her husband Arthur Upton, the play, which opened late last week, has received very positive reviews from both Peter Marx of the Washington Post and Ben Brantley of the New York Times. I found it enjoyable, to be sure, but a bit too idiosyncratic to be given five stars.
According to the program, Upton adapted Chekhov’s play. I wish I knew what that meant. Did he translate it? I don’t think so. Did he reorganize it or shorten it? Apparently not. Then what did he do?
The director, Tamas Ascher, is a well known Hungarian director, who worked through the Soviet era. Whether he has previously directed Vanya, I don’t know. Whether he speaks Russian, I am not sure. But I know that he does not speak English and worked through an interpreter.
A non-English speaking director is certainly an oddity. And I think it had an effect. There was less concentration on the words for one thing. Or, to put it better, there was more concentration on non-verbal performance. And, in order to concentrate on physical acting without affecting the audience’s ability to follow the script, I sensed a slowing down of dialogue, with two or three seconds often separating lines, particularly in dialogue (this can be taken too far, it is true, as when one particularly pregnant pause led an elderly voice from the audience to call out “He’s waiting for his cue”.)
In order, again, to concentrate on the physicality, some of the characters overplayed their roles, particularly Vanya himself, who was a bundle of nerves, frustration, and overwrought self control. And Blanchett herself, as Vanya’s beautiful and seductive sister-in-law, was no shrinking violet. There was a lot of movement on the stage, and in order to give justification to the movement, a lot of vodka. More, I think, than normal.
The cast was universally strong in this ensemble play. Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Hayley McElhinney as Sonya, Vanya’s niece who runs his brother-in-law’s estate with her uncle, Hugo Weaving as Dr. Astrov, and Jacki Weaver as the nurse deserve special notice. But, then again, so does everyone else.
I don’t think this was a perfect Vanya, because the vision and direction was so unique. But the cast was great, the play of course a classic, and the entire production enjoyable.
One other matter. It is said that this nineteenth century play was reset in the 1950s. One question would be: why bother? Another would be: how can you tell (other than the sound of Astrov’s motorcycle whenever he leaves the estate, and the portable radio in the first act. And who would own an estate like this in the USSR? And who would have servants? And talk about God? And not even mention the problems of the Soviet bureaucracy? Moving, or attempting to move, the date did not work.
The play will continue until until August 21.