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Enthusiatically positive reviews for Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya at The Kennedy Center continue to pour in, so I’ll post another selection of quotes and links. I was lucky enough to attend the “Look-in”, a Q&A session with some cast members, on August 16, followed by that evening’s performance. I’m prepping what will probably be an extensive entry on that experience for my personal LJ, but I’ll share a few comments about the play here. I know I’m biased about both Hugo Weaving and the STC, but this is one of the greatest evenings of theatre I’ve ever experienced, right up there with Ian McKellen in Richard III and STC’s Hedda Gabler. (If somone put a gun to my head, I’d say that Vanya is just a bit better than Hedda Gabler, because it potrays a warmer, more empathetic set of characters, though they’re all deeply flawed in various ways.) It’s far and away the best production of Chekhov I’ve ever seen, because it doesn’t dwell excessively on the characters’ self pity and sense of doom in the way some productions do. All of the actors deliver extraordinary work, and it’s a true ensemble piece, with no one upstaging anyone else.
New, improved version of the WireImage pic of Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh and Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley at the Uncle Vanya premiere party, 6 August… thanks to a kind Richard Roxburgh fan for the link. 😉
Hugo and Cate Blanchett are perhaps getting the most attention because they’re the most famous cast members, and because their characters indulge in a delirious romantic misfire. But Richard Roxburgh, Hayley McElhinney, John Bell and Jacki Weaver more than hold their own alongside them, and Anthony Phelan adds understated, disheveled charm in a supporting role. I don’t want to rehash the plot the way some critics have, though I’m happy to answer questions if anyone has any. I’ve never seen these characters made so relatable and human… even the stuffy, egotistical Serebryakov (Bell) isn’t completely unsympathetic, though his actions (and attractive young wife) stir up a lot of trouble. The four acts each have a distinct tone, with Act II providing a lot of lively drunken catharsis (much of it goaded on by Hugo’s Astrov). Roxburgh does a masterful job inhabiting Vanya, arguably the most difficult role in the play because he’s such a humiliated wreck, bemoaning his failings in life and romance. Roxburgh gives him welcome touches of vigor and humor. Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya might be the most sympathetic character to many audience members because she retains a strong, moral center throughout, despite a raging unrequited crush on Astrov (poor dear, we can all relate.) 😉 The ending isn’t as obnoxiously pious or desperate as some versions have made it; Sonya’s final words now seem an act of will and self-motivation (and prodding of her uncle) rather than the last delusion she has left to cling to. The disruptive events of the play don’t seem as completely destructive or final… everyone is sadder and wiser, but they all know one another a bit better, and life still might have something to offer them. If they can only get out of their own way, of course.
I could go on and on about Hugo’s performance… I probably will over time. He’s playing a character that, even on paper, seems designed to make me fall in love with him. Then there’s the casting. Hugo often sexily growls his lines, especially when trying to seduce Blanchett’s Yelena, but even then he isn’t taking himself completely seriously. The character was once deeply concerned about environmental issues, and ahead of his time in many ways, but doubts the ability of humanity to act sensibly. Thus he’s become cynical and alcoholic, with occasional flashes of his old idealism. He doubts his ability to truly love anyone, though he’s more than willing to “give Yelena a tumble” to distract himself. Blanchett makes Yelena much more sympathetic than she should be, being a manipulative trophy wife with a roving eye. One believes she sees her youthful romanticism in Sonya, and truly wants to be on good terms with her, but has become jaded about love because her youthful crush on a professor who inspired her has now devolved into a loveless marriage to a constantly kvetching hypochondriac. (Serebyrakov’s gout is the initial pretext for Astrov’s constant presence, but Yelena soon becomes the real reason.) It’s hard to say whether Astrov and Yelena are in love, or just sexually fascinated with one another…I’d lean toward the latter, though I think both have more feelings than they want to admit, or know how to cope with. Sonya is in love with the man she thinks Astrov is, while Yelena is attracted to the “strange old crank” he’s become, because she can relate to that. This version makes Yelena older than Chekhov, who lists her as being 27 in his stage notes… at one point Blanchett soothes her suspicious husband by sighing, “Just wait five or six years… I’ll be old too.” Blanchett plays Yelena’s awkward seduction scene like bored, somewhat desperate woman who’s been out of circulation for some time, but now attempts a coltish Marilyn Monroe impersonation. There are several levels to her acting in the scene, most subtly suggested through her movements. Hugo’s Astrov is initially nonplussed that Yelena is once again feigning interest in his causes just to get close to him, but is more than happy to call her bluff. (And call her a “delicious predator”.) At which point all hell breaks loose, as it must. 😉
I think in general the play is easier to relate to if you’re past the youthful, idealistic stage. Many younger (or escapist-leaning) audiences say they find Chekhov boring or depressing because “nothing happens” and there aren’t Shakespearian power struggles or body counts. But if you’ve had a few life experiences (or disappointments) it’s much easier to see the humor and endearing frailty of the characters. As far as some previous reviews go: Yes, the kiss between Astrov and Yelena is a doozy. No, the play isn’t set in Soviet Russia, or any dogmatically rendered historical period. The costumes and props suggest the 1940s to 60s, but the cast and director have stressed time and again that they aren’t attempting rigorous historical recreation. The focus is– and should be– on the characters and their universal dilemmas. I don’t remember this sort of literalist whining about McKellan’s fascist Richard III (or the historical inaccuracies in Shakespeare’s plays themselves, for that matter.) And yes, the cast have Australian accents. For some reason this is controversial to some people. Richard Roxburgh had some brilliantly withering comments about this at the Q&A. (I thought it would be taped, and now wish I had taken notes…) Anyhow, he said, in effect, that all translations are at a remove from the original, so accents might as well be authentic to whoever is staging the play. “….unless you think we should all just learn Russian,” Roxburgh quipped. Cate added that the play is as much Australian in this version as it is Russian, in striving for a greater universality. The adaptation by Andrew Upton renders Chekhov’s dialog more conversationally in places, and many references to obscure Russian writers and philosophers are omitted or truncated. But nothing is substantially changed, per se… I found what I saw and heard to be an accurate rendering of the literal-translation text I found online, just less stilted and more colloquial. (There is some mild cursing, but never anachronistic slang or meta-referencing.)
I realize I’ve already gone on quite a bit, so I’ll cut my own impressions short and stress that anyone who can see this production should, if at all possible. And if you can’t, go leave comments on STC’s website begging them to film it, or make a sequel to In The Company Of Actors. I know neither would really duplicate the experience of seeing the lay, but this production is once in a lifetime in its quality, and should be documented in some way.
Now to comments by other, more concise reviewers (the first critical roundup of the play can be seen here, if you missed it.) I’ll intersperse some photos my boyfriend John took at he Kennedy Center, including some of Hugo at the stage door. 😉 Yes, I got an autograph… I’ll save that story for my personal LJ too. Suffice to say he remains a generous, patient man in his interactions with fans, and is a calming presence. I’ve never met anyone so famous who is so approachable and unaffected. And, yes, gorgeous. Hugo’s looking very tanned and toned these days.
Hugo signs autographs, chats with fans outside the Kennedy Center August 16
The Reviews: “…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.” White Rose
“Hugo Weaving is a dynamo as Dr. Astrov. Called upon to take his physicality to
the extreme, he never rings false upon the stage. Whether drunkenly dancing or
leaping with a bounce after a fall, Mr. Weaving is magnetic. It is very easy to
see why Sonia and Yelena are drawn to him….” The Accidental Thespian
“…although she talks about her unending “boredom,” Blanchett makes it clear that
Chekhov was not writing about conventional boredom, but rather of a deeper sense
of estrangement. Roxburgh is a thoroughly appealing Vanya, funny, open and
honest, lost in his devotion to Yelena….Weaving creates a brilliant Astrov, a man prone to heady talk but ready to dance
his troubles away when drunk. Hayley McElhinney plays Sonya with poignant charm.
The remaining members of the ensemble are first-rate.” Washington Examiner
“…Cate Blanchett proves once again that she is a master of both the screen and
stage. She wanders around as the disenchanted object of affection, but after a
few swigs of Russian water, she loses all airs of dignified distance, rolling
her eyes at Vanya’s musings and delighting in drunken girl talk with Sonya. Her
scenes with Hugo Weaving, who you might remember from a little film called
The Matrix, are simply electric. Weaving’s charismatic Astrov is a
doctor and a family friend, and it is his sharp sensibility that wins Yelena’s
heart. Their scenes together make for a masterful acting class, emphasizing the
subtle power of a sideways glance or a hand on the knee…” Woman About Town
“…I could go on about the generous, full-bodied performances but I’ll let one
detail suffice; the way each character reacts to vodka is wonderfully funny and
astutely particular. Never generically drunk, the characters’ inner lives are
magnified and, at times, set free in stunning detail by knocking back a shot (or
two…or three). Weaving’s Astrov does a sexy, joyous lunge of a Russian dance.
Roxburgh’s Vanya inflates and deflates like the sad clown of a silent film.
Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya is struck dumb with adolescent paralysis and
unspeakable joy/fear. And Blanchett’s Yelena hilariously bubbles and coos as she
searches for a place to settle. Intoxicating.” The Broadway Blog
“More than any other actor, Blanchett sets this production’s tone of slapstick
tragedy. Yet this Sydney company is so inspired that Blanchett gives only
the third most prodigious performance. Roxburgh is spellbinding as Vanya: funny
and poignant not just in turn, but often at the same time. Weaving acts with a
bedraggled everyday heroism that is stirring, and he’s full of surprises — when
he breaks into a Russian dance, he’s extraordinarily light on his feet.” Mike Sragow, Baltimore Sun
“…Following a 6-month break after Uncle Vanya‘s first run in Sydney, this
all-Australian cast reconvened for its exclusive U.S. engagement in D.C. By the
time it got here, the director trusted the cast with the material and told them
to surprise each other every night. This gives them the freedom to work within
the framework of the play and means that each show is apparently a little
different from the last. (Now, I kind of want to see it again!)…” Melissa’s Kitties
“…This production was an excellent reminder of the humor in Chekhov, without
crossing that boundary into farce, and also of just how much can be contained in
between Chekhov’s spoken lines, the glances, the pauses, the movements, and
gestures. A great example was the awkward final kiss between Yelena (Cate
Blanchett, all platinum hair and out-of-place stylishness) and the country
doctor Astrov (played with loose-limbed swagger and whimsical humor by Hugo
Weaving), in which barely suppressed passion is mis-coordinated to the point of
embarrassment. This was an ingenious decision since Astrov is a man so incapable
of human attachment that the most heartfelt relationship he has in the play is
with the family’s old nurse, played with disarming simplicity by veteran actress
Jacki Weaver.” IonArts
“…I had never been more enthralled with people discussing boredom. At first,
watching, I didn’t know what to do with them. Then they started to act out some.
Then they started to feel familiar. Chekhov’s gun, this time around, was
passion. Set into rural Russia, this contraband was symbolic, yes. But if such a
situation could happen to a whole country trapped in a room, it could happen to
you, looking out. Laughs would occur, and you wouldn’t be alone. But you would
still be in the room.” Patrick Cooper
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh taped an interview for PBS Newshour on August 15, the night before I saw the play. A lot of the material covered here also came up in the Q&A (Look-In) on August 16, though the latter was much more fun. (Also, Hugo Weaving, John Bell and Hayley McElhinney attended the Look-In. All were very casually attired… Hugo in the denim you see in the above photos, his costars similar. Though Cate Blanchett remains so stunningly beautiful with no make-up and her hair tied back carelessly that you might momentarily lose your will to live.) 😉 Here’s the full 20-minute edit of the PBS interview:
…And you should also check out Hugo’s brief but winsome interview with Metro Weekly, which mostly focuses on his classic role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Hugo had mentioned Vanya director Tamas Ascher’s instruction to “find your clowns” in developing their characters for the play… in this interview, he adds a twist: “Everyone has a drag queen inside them…And it’s a matter of finding the particular drag that suits you, that lives inside you.” 😉
Finally, I’ve added scans of the Uncle Vanya Playbill at my Flickr Archive. Alas, there’s no deluxe program as there was with Hedda Gabler at BAM in 2006, but I’ve tried to share everything… More thoughts will follow on my personal LJ for anyone I haven’t exhausted already. 😉