Uncle Vanya Review Roundup

Note: This is an archived entry that’s several years old. While I have ensured that all photos are restored, some links may no longer work. If you encounter any dead links, let me know and I’ll try to find a copy of the material. Some entries may not be up to my current standards as far as photo source and other credits are concerned; if you are a photographer or writer of a piece that lacks appropriate acknowledgement, please let me know and I’ll be happy to add source info.

Before I head down to Washington DC to check out STC’s Uncle Vanya for myself, I thought I’d post a compilation of all the positive reviews that have appeared so far… really all of the reviews, since they’ve been uniformly rapturous. 😉 Click on the links to read the full texts at the site of origin… here are select quotes with an emphasis on Hugo Weaving’s performance as Astrov:

“…Ascher, a Hungarian, moves the tragicomedy up in time, from Chekhov’s czarist Russia, circa 1899, to the Soviet era, say around 1955. In the context of a spreading totalitarian malaise, the transposition — aided immensely by Andrew Upton’s punchy translation — works terrifically. Our familiarity with reflections on the oppressiveness of the Soviet era turns this stifling landscape into apt metaphor. So when the magnetic doctor, Astrov, played to beguiling, vodka-soaked perfection by Hugo Weaving, talks of a brighter future for generations yet unborn, we intuit even more profoundly than usual that it’s a future he doesn’t believe in….”  Peter Marks, The Washington Post

“…Under most circumstances I’d run a country mile to avoid being trapped in a room with the desperate characters now inhabiting the Sydney Theater Company’s production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Kennedy Center here. Yet I consider the three hours I spent on Saturday night watching them complain about how bored they are among the happiest of my theatergoing life. …Staged by the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher — and featuring a brilliant daredevil performance by Cate Blanchett as a chipped trophy wife — this “Uncle Vanya” gets under your skin like no other I have seen. For what is created here is an ever-pulsing portrait of just how impossible and essential it is to live in close quarters with those maddening creatures called human beings, especially those you regard (Heaven help you) as family….But the entire cast — which also includes Jacki Weaver (unrecognizable from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Animal Kingdom”) as the old family nanny, Sandy Gore as Vanya’s petulant mother and Anthony Phelan as a hapless hanger-on — is close to Ms. Blanchett’s level (and in the case of Mr. Weaving, right there on it). They all give thoroughly detailed physical performances, in which you always feel both the chafe and dubious comfort of domestic intimacy…When Ms. Blanchett and Mr. Weaving’s characters finally lock lips — as you know they have to — it is one of the saddest, funniest, sexiest and most gracefully awkward misfires in the history of kissing.”  Ben Brantley, New York Times. (Mr. Brantley ponders Hugo and Cate’s kiss further in this column.)

“Hungarian director Tamas Ascher guides the steadily building tension with an unwavering hand, crafting an engrossing environment where the actors luxuriate in lulls as much as they do language. The Oscar-winning Blanchett — a marquee attraction who is more luminous than any mere sign that’s ever borne her name — delivers such a deft, delightful performance that she alone would be reason enough to secure a ticket… Yet Roxburgh’s Vanya proves that Blanchett isn’t the only blond bombshell onstage. He simmers and sulks and yearns — and ultimately detonates with such force that he very nearly destroys himself. Weaving’s Astrov is a fascinating study of a man who would swagger more if he weren’t staggering around so much from the vodka he loves…”   Jonathan Padget, Metro Weekly

“Totally bored and indifferent to her husband, Yelena alternates from icily poised to warm and almost goofy, but mostly she is restless. And while Vanya’s romantic advances repulse her, she does feel something for the visiting doctor Astrov (played superbly by Hugo Weaving, best known for the film, “The Adventures Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”). Though coarsened by a decade of hard work and vodka, Astrov remains charming and sensitive. Forward thinking like the playwright (Chekhov was also a physician), the doctor is obsessed with preventing the deforestation of the countryside. In fact, he delivers a monologue with a strong environmental message that strongly resonates today more than a century later.

Regardless of Astrov’s recommendation that Russians spare trees and extract fuel from the earth, a workman can be seen frequently chopping wood in the background. And despite (or because of) the doctor’s aversion to felled trees, Zsolt Khell’s set is mostly timber. The interior of the formerly grand but now rundown house is backed by a huge wall of weathered planks and firewood is stacked here and there.

Working from a lively adaptation by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband with whom she runs Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company), Ascher rather brilliantly moves the action from turn-of-the-century Tsarist Russia to mid-1950s Soviet Union. There is no romantic descent into genteel poverty or hope for the future. The atmosphere is more stultifying than ever: as pesky flies drone, radio static hums, the household grows increasingly on edge, ultimately erupting in bursts of violence. And when they’re not fighting, the extended family goes in for demonstrations of remorse, friendship and passion. Also included throughout are some very funny uncomfortable silences, pratfalls and drunken interludes, but nothing feels the least forced when executed by this top-notch group of Aussie actors.” Patrick Folliard, The Washington Blade

Richard Roxburgh as Vanya, Hugo Weaving as Astrov (original Sydney production, Lisa Tomasetti photo)

“It’s hard to make an audience root for such ineffectual malcontents — some may even say losers. But Ascher and his cast find unexpected entries into the characters.

Bored and married to an uppity boor, Yelena is surprisingly sympathetic. Astrov calls her a “delicious predator,” but she’s more of a hapless prisoner of her own beauty. Blanchett’s attention-grabbing mannerisms serve her well here: This Yelena is a star in search of a movie.

Meanwhile, Roxburgh and Weaving are superbly beaten down, finding dignity in frustration for Roxburgh, melancholy for Weaving. You’d be hard-pressed to find more affecting misery.” Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post

“A true ensemble piece, this amazing cast is led by the extraordinary Richard Roxburgh as the dissatisfied Uncle Vanya; John Bell as his brother, the retired and rheumatic Professor; Cate Blanchett as Yelena; the poignant Hayley McElhinney as her hardworking and plain stepdaughter Sonya; and the marvelous Hugo Weaving as the doctor Astrov, who Sonya secretly loves. The cast is rounded out by Jacki Weaver as sympathetic nanny Marina, Anthony Phelan as Telegin, Andrew Tighe as a laborer, and Sandy Gore as the matriarch Maria.

The story is a study on human nature, and the dysfunction in every family: love, regret, admiration, anger, envy. Vanya embodies ennui and discontent. Despite its light moments, I left the theatre with a sense of unease (despite being bowled over yet again by Cate’s stupendous acting abilities and stage presence). Chekhov makes you reflect on inaction, missed opportunities, resignation about one’s lot in life.” Lani, Stage Notes

“But these are fascinating creatures just the same, perhaps more so than usual, thanks to …

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of the play, which has a crisp, contemporary ring without being forced. And thanks also to director Tamas Ascher, who keeps the tension strong even when things are at their most static and who ensures that the flashes of humor register potently — I’m not sure Chekhov has ever been quite this funny…Hugo Weaving likewise fully inhabits the role of Astrov, the bored country doctor whose presence at the estate proves unsettling to several people in several ways. Weaving is especially deft at revealing the liberating influence of drink on the otherwise low-keyed doctor. When he kicks up his heels, he sends a seismic jolt through the play. He is no less delectable in the scene with Blanchett when Astrov and Yelena finally have their moment of passion, however abbreviated, however absurd. ” Tim Smith, Clef Notes and Drama Queens/Baltimore Sun

“There are no weaknesses in this lively and penetrating production that benefits from a talented ensemble, a frank new adaptation by Andrew Upton and a nuanced interpretation by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, a renowned Chekhov scholar…Hugo Weaving fashions a carefully textured performance as the confident but hopelessly smitten Dr. Astrov. The free-spirited character, who commutes to the estate on his motorcycle, is intensely focused on his interests but blind to Sonia’s affections. Yet all pretensions are lost when he suddenly falls out the window after too many vodkas — a bit of business that perfectly captures Ascher’s refreshing and unforgettable production.” Paul Harris, Variety

“Anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a sense of existential despair—or been compelled to drown said despair by diving headfirst into a vodka bottle—can learn a lot from Anton Chekhov. His tragically wise, comically morose characters make our 21st century navel-gazing look positively paltry in comparison, as they cling to jokes instead of Prozac and embrace nihilism as a veritable art form.

‘We are blessed with imagination to create . . . and all we’ve done is destroy,’says a doctor in Andrew Upton’s brilliant new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, possibly aware that his own talent and youth has been similarly wrecked by years of boozing and hopelessness. Dr. Astrov (played by the remarkably versatile Hugo Weaving) is one of many depressed characters illuminated in this production by the Sydney Theatre Company, currently experiencing an extended period of brilliance at the hands of Upton and his wife, Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett…

…If the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which came to the Kennedy Center in 2009, felt like a starring vehicle for the flawless Blanchett, Vanya is much more of an ensemble production. Nearly every cast member, from the tragically hopeless Roxburgh to the brilliantly expressive McElhinney, is mesmerizing to watch. Weaving, familiar to most from his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy, seems to summon up hints of another character here: his compelling, masked anarchist in V for Vendetta. As a helplessly charismatic and self-destructive environmentalist (his character worships forests but despairs of what may happen to them), he seems trapped, like the others, in a spiral of drunkenness and futility.”  Sophie Gilbert, After Hours/The Washingtonian

” The actors’ accents arise typically from down under. Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nominated this year for Animal Kingdom, is broad of speech and warm of bearing. Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya is showily plain, whereas Astrov, the local physician whom she loves, is given moments of hearty abandon by Hugo Weaving. His look-at-me performance was the evening’s most theatrical, not to mention my favourite, which suggests that old adages about the virtue of non-acting sometimes have notable exceptions.” Brandon Lemon, The Financial Times

“The production features a slam-bang performance by film actress Cate Blanchett, who throws herself into the role of the luminously tarnished trophy wife of the gouty and pretentious older professor with the verve of a screwball comedienne under the spell of Stanislavsky. Miss Blanchett, wearing fit-like-a-glove frocks from the 1950s that recall the finest Hitchcock blondes, brings playfulness and lithe physicality to the part, resulting in pratfalls and near-misses that reveal just how inept Yelena and the other characters are at intimate contact…This entrenched isolation extends to the country doctor Astrov (Hugo Weaving), desired by both Sonya and Yelena and who can blame them since Mr. Weaving gives the character such a potent combination of romanticism and elegant cynicism the good doctor is simply sex on a blini. No wonder Miss Blanchette’s Yelena tackles Mr. Weaving’s Astrov like a linebacker pouncing on a fumble during their destined –but poignantly graceless—kiss.”  Jayne Blanchard, DC Theater Scene

“Though this set-up has the makings of a depressing evening, director Tamás Ascher, who is known for his interpretations of Chekov, finds glimmers of light within the darkness. Consider the scene between Yelena and Sonya, where the two end years of estrangement and share a poignant and all-too-brief moment of sheer joy. Astrov’s drunken dance for Vanya not only brings some welcome comic relief, but also showcases Weaving’s impressive stage presence, making it all the more clear why he is becoming a Hollywood go-to for roles requiring a certain gravitas. Even the play’s climax, in which Vanya attempts to shoot Serebryakov, is portrayed with comedic undertones.” Sriram Gopal, The DCist

“…A magnificent Hugo Weaving is the doctor Astrov whose desire for Yelena soon brings events to a head. All of these performances are notable for they easily make the characters appear rough and tumble without the actors themselves coming off sloppy. This is not a production of furtive glances, but one of grabbing, mauling, and direct physical contact. The show feels real and lived in, not just spoken about and acted out. The mid-20th Century setting and earth tone color palette invoke Australia more than Russia, but adds to the sense of people living their lives and bumping up against each other in doing so. It’s a much more refreshing approach to Chekhov than the rather dreary political version recently seen on stage in London’s National Theater where The Cherry Orchard appeared earlier this summer. I, like many in the U.S. saw that as part of the NT Live series in local theaters. But for those of you on the east coast, this Uncle Vanya is the real deal and right in your own backyard. Don’t miss it before it’s gone next month.” Brian, Out West Arts

“…Hugo Weaving is magnetic as the vodka ladened doctor Astrov. He is a force perfectly matched with Ms. Blanchett. Much of their sexual tension is carried throughout the play and it is SO palpable. In fact, they didn’t even need to say much. It’s felt and seen through their the very nuanced actions. Cate Blanchett, as Yelena is restless and an enticement without knowing it. She is, in one word, incredible. I have never seen a stage presence ever so strong that your eyes are drawn to her. Her walk across the stage, a lean on the wall or even how she sits on a chair tells you so much without even speaking. I know I am gushing but I am really in awe. I mean, she’s a well known actress with a “celebrity” factor but she managed to inhabit Yelena that I had forgotten that she was Cate Blanchett and just saw the character. It’s one theatre experience I’ll never forget.” Pinky, Stage Notes

Hayley McElHinney as Sonya, Hugo Weaving as Astrov; photo Washington Post/Getty Images

More reviews: Bloomberg News, Northern Virginia Review, TheaterMania

More articles about the Washington DC production of STC’s Uncle Vanya: Sydney Morning Herald, Faded Youth, Express Night Out (Richard Roxburgh interview), USA Today (Cate Blanchett interview), The Washington Post (full cast interview and photo gallery), The Washingtonian (Hayley McElhinney interview), Associated Press, ABC Sydney, Playbill, Russian Review, The Social Shuttle and The Australian. And, if you want to read it again (annd who wouldn’t?) ;)… Hugo Weaving’s Baltimore Sun interview.

There’s a good chance that the cast Q&A session (which the Kennedy Center calls a “look-in”) on the afternoon of the 16th will be filmed and eventually posted to their website: they have a large video archive of similar previous events. I’ll be attending in person, but I don’t think they’ll permit me to film. 😉 But if the session is filmed by The Kennedy Center, I’ll post the details here as soon as I’m back– it’s really only fair to all the fans who can’t make it to DC that they do, so let’s hope for the best.


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