It’s hard to know where Chekhov finishes and Upton begins, but STC co-artistic director, Andrew Upton has definitely, and definitively, put his stamp on Anton Pavlovich’s untouchable classic; for better, or worse. Personally, I think Upton deserves credit for his bold adaptation, regardless of the consequences. At least he’s taken it somewhere. Australia. Via Hungary.
Upton and Chekhov specialist, Hungarian director Tamas Ascher (no stranger to Sydney festival-goers), have let the blowies in to set designer Zsolt Khell’s veritable woolstore. And the weather is as sultry as Yelena’s knowing sensuality. What better setting for a hotbed of lust; a crucible for boredom, disintegration and despair? This could be an outback sheep-station, boarded by sweat and beer-soaked shearers; Yelena could be the top sort from the big smoke and her hubby, a Pitt Street farmer. Well, almost. Except Chekhov’s hopelessness is not so much punctuated by desert-dry, deadpan Aussie acerbity, but blunt, Vodka-fuelled insult and plainspeak, a la Russe.
Khell’s rustic, railway-sleeper, shiver-me-timbers wall encloses the actors, hemming them in, even amidst an endless agricultural expanse, to their closed-off, shut-down, cloying, claustrophobic existence. Moreover, there’s the ever-present threat of the gigantic structure toppling, crushing them all. But who wouldn’t be at each other’s throats when there’s nothing to do? When it all seems so pointless, inexorable, irresistible? Who wouldn’t be in love, or lust, when attractive women, or men, are so thin on the ground? Morality cowers when desire beckons. Allusions to heavy, burdensome humidity (even the four-be-two looks to be darkened by dampness) are deft metaphors for this entropy and, inasmuch, this is an adaptational masterstroke, whether deliberated or stumbled upon. This is Upton as minor genius.
Contrasting this are Gyorgi Szakacs costumes, which adhere more closely to class distinctions in an aristocratic, poverty-riddled bygone Russia. In and of themselves, they are superb, but how do they fit, I wonder, with the above?
Vanya’s (or Professor Serebryakov’s) country-house isn’t the humbly idyllic one I imagine from Chekhov’s stage directions, but a shambles. The kind that, were it a suburban house, might be populated by countless, underfed cats and stacks of newspapers. Vanya, too, is a shambles, already bent, broken and resigned, at least spiritually. He’s lost his mojo. Roxburgh (like other greatly charismatic actors playing himself, as always), through the judicious conjuring of Ascher presumably, ensures his carriage and cynical attitude thoroughly mimics Chekhov’s intent and Szakacs has clad him sympathetically, to this end. He is at all times compelling and has managed the difficult transition of his character from pre-revolutionary Russia to an indeterminate Australian vernacular. It makes him even easier than usual to like and relate to. He might be Rake, on television, but here he’s an old spade, or shovel, already digging his own grave; or, having dug it, teetering on the edge, liable to slide in.
It has struck me this Vanya is like a dance. John Bell, for example, commands a characteristically disciplined, even meter, dramatically metronomic, counting the beats for the rest of the cast. Not marking time, but making it; determining how it will flow. The planet around which all the satellite actors and characters revolve. Yet he’s a moon, not a sun: cruelly, cold, dry, dark and foreboding, misanthropic; he shines no light, radiates no warmth. He is a perfect professor. Of performance, as well as in the guise of the retired Serebryakov. His stage wife, Yelena, is played by Blanchett. Hers, too, is a cool role. Something of an ice princess, who melts into the magnetism of the doctor, the only lifeforce orbiting their Godforsaken enclave. For such a slim, elongated creature, Blanchett, far from looking gawky or gangly, as well she might, only ever looks elegant, the very picture, given just a little poetic licence, of aristocratic poise. With those cheekbones and such immaculately-honed craft, let alone her trademark treacled tonality, how can she fail. And, of course, she does look her beautiful part: here in postwar, figure-hugging, bespoke gowns and with platinum curls.
While Blanchett is classically balletic in her movement, sliding and gliding, Weaving shuffles like Mick Jagger meets Mohammed Ali, presumably to exemplify his appetite for life, but coming off as a little too amphetamined. Otherwise, he vies, as character and healthily competitive camaraderie demands with Roxburgh, to dominate the action and our attention. Barndancing with these stars is the bucolic, broadly-accented Hayley McElhinney who, notwithstanding the stellar luminosity surrounding her, delivers what is almost certainly the most consistent and thoroughgoing performance of any of the major players: Roxburgh and Weaving tend to flash with brilliance, to wax and wane, as do their affectations of speech, flirting with classicism but flitting to ockerism, while McElhinney slowly and steadily wins the race to the gloomy finish.
The litmus test is whether or not Upton’s adaptation does justice to Chekhov’s vision. The verdict? I must equivocate. I think some of the subtleties are, perhaps, lost. I don’t see so much of the garden that surrounds the ironically peaceful, picturesque home which is the focus for all the action. I see all the wilted flowers, the plants bent grotesquely out of shape by the gulf between rich and poor. There are no tall poplars. I see nothing of the promise of change. Where is the promise of salvation? I see only the most pathetic pleas to hold onto hope. All seems futile. And heaven’s reward seems elusive, if not unbelievable. Then again, perhaps all these are ironic conceits, deviously employed to seduce our innate leanings towards forms of blind optimism, be they embodied in homespun hope, or elaborate religious or political allegiances.
The only saving grace is in Bell’s insistent delivery of the exhortation to ‘do something!’ Life’s a-wasting; time stands still, nothing changes back on the farm, and yet it’s rushing by. Where is the music, the harmony, suggested by the guitar lying idly on a chair? There’s a hammock, yet noone can relax. There’s a kind of reverie, peace, beauty and birdsong in the languid afternoon air, yet none senses it.
All that’s really seen are the gloomy clouds. And it’s inasmuch that Upton and Ascher have realised something important. It’s not necessarily the whole heart of the play, but it serves the zeitgeist well. Perhaps the seeming added emphasis on the destruction of the forests has been appropriated as a message of urgency for us. Climate is changing everything. Yet we languish. Those poplars are falling all around us. We will soon follow, unless we ‘do something!’ Who knew we’d have so much in common with late 19th-century Russia?
At the same time, there’s a missed opportunity. What if all the cast were Aboriginal? Or at least if Vanya was? Would there be any more poignant adaptation, for this country, than one which seeks to drive home the sense of overwhelming despair and futility so often experienced by indigenous Australians? Yes, Wayne Blair, Ernie Dingo, David Gulpilil, or Aaron Pederson, as Vanya.
“Those who come 100 or 200 years after us will despise us for having lived our lives so stupidly and tastelessly. Perhaps they’ll find a means to be happy.”
The details: Uncle Vanya plays the Sydney Theatre until January 1. Limited tickets are available on the STC website.