Sydney Theatre Company at Lincoln Center Festival
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****
Before Uncle Vanya, I didn't think you could go into a play too cold - at least one that wasn't Shakespeare. Surprise, you can!
I'll admit that it's partly my own fault for not getting more out of the Sydney Theatre Company's production, which played for two weeks in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This was my first Chekhov play and I should have read the synopsis in the program.
For example, I knew that the play was about Vanya and his niece Sonya, who live on a dilapidated country estate. From what I know about Russian literature, which isn't a lot, I figured there'd be unhappy people talking about how unhappy they were. I was pretty sure there'd be vodka.
Since Oscar winner Cate Blanchett was the most famous person in the cast, I figured she was Sonya. Wrong! She was Yelena, the younger, glamorous wife of the revered Professor Serebryakov and Sonya's stepmother. They've come from the city to visit the estate that once belonged to Sonya's mother, an event that causes complications for everyone.
Another problem, for most of the first act I was straining to hear from the back of the orchestra. The 2,200-seat City Center is the biggest theatre I've been in for a play in which the actors were not amplified. I have to wonder, does a director ever sit in the house during rehearsals to make sure the dialogue can be heard?
Eventually I got a sense of what was going on. I read the summary at intermission. Act II was more emotional, with people talking louder, which helped. I ended up being moved by Uncle Vanya. It's a play about unrequited love and people whose lives have not turned out the way they had hoped, who fear for their future.
Blanchett was stunning. The way she was lit onstage, what she wore - tailored suits and a red cocktail dress - made her stand out. It was interesting to see how she related to the other characters - Vanya, Sonya, the physician Astrov, who's come to look after her husband. You could see why they all gravitated toward her, why all the men were in love with her. She really stands out amid this drab existence.
But the two performances that affected me most deeply were Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Hayley McElhinney as Sonya. They were both heart-wrenching.
Roxburgh's Vanya has devoted his life to caring for this estate, given to his late sister when she married Serebryakov. Now he faces the prospect of having it sold out from under him. He looks at Yelena and Serebryakov and thinks about what his life could have been like. McElhinney's Sonya is hopelessly in love with Hugo Weaving's Astrov, a physician bored with country life who doesn't give her a second thought.
Uncle Vanya was directed by Tamas Ascher and adapted by Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic director along with Blanchett, his wife. Ascher and Upton have been praised for injecting humor into this production and there was a lot of laughter. But it just struck me as inappropriate.
There's a place for dark comedy - I loved John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for instance. Sometimes a situation is so sad that you have to laugh. And several people on my Twitter feed told me that Chekhov considered most of his plays - including Vanya - to be comedies.
But I didn't see the humor in Uncle Vanya. Nothing in the main characters' situations made me want to laugh. Instead, by the end of the play, with Vanya and Sonya feeling unappreciated and unloved, I just felt a deep sense of sorrow for them.