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Don't Keep Calm, But Carry On: Uncle Vanya at the Lincoln Center Festival

There are many definitions of comedy, and one is when circumstances are ripe for tragedy, but it fails to materialize. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s tale of disappointed love and disappointed lives on a declining country estate, is a comedy.

In Tamas Ascher’s production for the Sydney Theatre Company, currently playing at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, this point is hammered home.  There is a good deal of slapstick—pratfalls and pillow fights and exploding bouquets—as well as high-comedy polish and synchronicity.  This ribald approach is certainly preferable to the turgid reverence that mars some Chekhov productions. But there is the danger of edging out the nuance of a play that has endured for 116 years, despite the declaration of one of the leading characters that no one in the future will remember them.

Because, of course, it can just as easily be argued that Uncle Vanya is one of the first modern tragedies—a play about fleeting lives unable to embrace beliefs, opportunities, or each other.

It begins on a stifling summer day in the kitchen of a decrepit estate painfully maintained by Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky (Vanya) and his niece Sonya. The local doctor, a flamboyant figure, is waxing eloquent on a familiar Chekhovian theme—the dreariness of provincial life, which has made him old before his time and turned him into a “crank.” 

Enter Vanya, also complaining of old age. At forty-seven, he is suddenly without convictions, and his household has been turned upside-down by the arrival of Alexandr Serebryakov, a retired professor and the former husband of his dead sister. Serebryakov has brought with him a glamorous new wife—Yelena Andreevna, who has turned over Vanya’s heart as well.

Farm life is all about rhythms, cycles and repetition, and it is one of the play’s central metaphors that the rhythms of the estate—meals at regular times, planting, harvesting, and bill paying—have yielded to the tumultuous and uncertain rhythms of emotion. Sonya, the plain, commonsensical daughter of Professor Serebryakov by his first marriage, pines for Astrov, the broody doctor, and both Astrov and Vanya pine for Yelena. 

Chekhov’s genius manifests itself in two key aspects of this work: he can imbue stasis with uncanny energy (“You have infected us with your idleness” Astrov complains to Yelena at one point) and he equips his characters with enough intelligence to recognize their unhappiness, but not enough to escape it.

Each main character, in turn, expresses his/her anguish and frustration. Each regrets a wasted past and glimpses a fulfilling future just out of reach.  Ascher’s instinct is to subvert the potential bathos of these utterances with a robust sense of the ridiculous—speeches are made from astride the furniture; people tumble through doors and out of windows; Vanya tries to cudgel his brother-in-law with a wilted bouquet of flowers. Sometimes, however, the manic pace carries us past the heart-rending equilibrium of hopelessness that is the essential core of this work.

It is a tribute to the bright Sydney cast that they manage to honor both Ascher’s interpretation (of a lively adaptation by Andrew Upton) and something elusive beyond the constraints of the production.

One uniform characteristic—presumably a directive of Ascher’s—is physical restlessness. Astrov, Vanya, and Yelena cannot keep still, while stolid Sonya is given to hurling herself at people when in the grip of emotion.   

Hugh Weaving’s Astrov has the uneven charm of a visionary (or “crank”) for whom the world is not quite ready. (Indeed, he is uncannily prescient—his speeches on the systematic depredation of the landscape could have been penned by the Environmental Defense Fund).   He throws his languid, tapering body in and out of the furniture, at peace, ironically, only when he is drawing topographical maps that show the erosion of the countryside. He maintains that he is unable to love, and even his passion for Yelena feels like an attitude he is trying on.

Cate Blanchett was certainly one reason City Center was teeming on the night I saw this production, and she managed the graceful hat trick of delivering up star quality, sex appeal and Chekhovian serio-comic angst.  Yelena (the Russian form of Helen, Greek mythology’s legendary temptress) is Vanya’s most problematic character.  She is directionless, existing primarily in the light of other people’s obsessions. She describes herself as “a sketch”, but must convince us that she can become the center of everyone else’s life. Chekhov was peculiarly sensitive, for a man of his time, to the fact that beauty is not a job.

Blanchett’s performance reminded me of the character Jessica Rabbit, the seductive wife of besieged Roger Rabbit in the animated film. Jessica consists mostly of curves, and at one point complains, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”  Costumes for this production of Vanya are vaguely 1940-ish, and Yelena parades before us in Joan Crawford-style suits and slinky sheaths flashing a lot of leg.  She is in fact relatively virtuous, but cannot seem to help the way she leans into men as she speaks to them. Then, when they grab her, she is horrified and disgusted. 

My first Uncle Vanya was Michael Redgrave, in the legendary 1963 production. I remember him as stifled. In contrast, Richard Roxburgh has unbottled everything that Redgrave suppressed. He seems literally unable to contain himself, with roving hands that tug at his scalp as if hoping to let the demons out.  He knows he is foolish, and splenetic, and yet the note of longing as he describes the life he’s missed out on pulls you into an undertow of sympathy and dread.

The principals are admirably supported by John Bell in the unsympathetic role of self-serving and oblivious Serebryakov, who precipitates a crisis by blandly announcing that the estate should be sold to keep him in the style to which he is accustomed—in town. And by Sandy Gore—a Breughel like-figure as the sturdy and loyal nanny Maria.

Uncle Vanya is a comedy: Vanya tries, and fails, to shoot Serebryakov, tries, and fails, to win Yelena; tries, and fails, to stick to a plan to kill himself.  One by one, the strife-strewing interlopers leave (“Gone,” Maria announces with satisfaction), including Astrov, who has managed to break Sonya’s heart without ever really acknowledging her existence.

In the closing scene, Vanya is finally still—an automaton taking up again the household accounts. “We must live,” says Sonya, to whom Chekhov has turned over the play.  It is not a consoling end—live, labor, and only then “rest.”  But it has dignity, and grace, and cannot be laughed at.