Sunday, January 2, 2011

Uncle Vanya

Sydney Theatre Company and Goldman Sachs in association with Bell Shakespeare presents UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Andrew Upton at the Sydney Theatre.


THE SEAGULL, UNCLE VANYA, THREE SISTERS and THE CHERRY ORCHARD, the four great plays of Anton Chekhov. THREE SISTERS is my favourite and the greatest in my estimation. UNCLE VANYA is the smaller gem and my next favoured. Both great, mostly, differing only, in the scale of their scenarios.

What makes the works of Chekhov a favourite exploration for actors and audiences (especially, if you have the opportunity to see the works regularly, as in Europe, where they are a staple of the theatre 'diet') is the endless possibility of interpretation. The fine ambiguity of the Chekhovian text (I only know the work in translation) permits the attentive artist to work in the minutiae of close observation. The placement of an ellipse, a pause, the repetition of phrase or indicated action by the writer can be a key to the core of character and the springboard to a unique point-of-view for every actor tackling the character. It is for the attuned audience, then, an artistic reason for going to the theatre: to ascertain and appreciate the performances of different actors and companies in the same sphere of writing. The last major performance of UNCLE VANYA would be the St. Petersburg Company in the Sydney Festival a few years ago. To contrast and compare could be an interesting exercise.

The actor/director (Stanislavsky) of the Moscow Arts Theatre that premiered UNCLE VANYA (1899) gives some insight into the technique of approach to the work ; “...Most people think that Serebryakov's estate manager (Vanya) should wear long boots, a visor cap and should appear with a riding crop in his hand, but Chekhov was outraged by this idea.
'Look – he said -it's all there. You haven't read the play.'
We looked in the script and found that apart from a short note about the tie Vanya wears there was no reference to his clothing.
'What's all there? The silk tie?.'
“But of course! He has a beautiful tie on; he is an elegant civilized man. It is not true at all that our estate managers run around wearing greased boots. They are well-educated people and dress elegantly after the last Paris fashion. I wrote it all down.'”

'I wrote it all down.' says the writer.

The close reading of the text is the first step in the distinguishing technique that Chekhov masterfully demands of the actor. It pays to read his short stories often and slowly to hone this skill. The Chekhovian genius of the accurate detail can awaken the imagination into insightful paths of investigation to find the character. That it is the individual mind of each actor – his own personalized application of his own first and secondary resources – the unique individual that extrapolates the clue that opens the glorious, endless ambiguity of the writing that is the arresting thing. There is no 'right' way to play the characters. There is no 'wrong' way, either. And even when playing the same character but in a different production the choices will be different again because the other actors will be honing the information distinctly differently and so responding and creating whole new ways of reading the characters and the scene. The pleasure of this investigation and trying anew, is tiring and thrilling. It requires the actors to invest in their ego and yet surrender, in the action of rehearsal and particularly performance, to the collaborative input of the ensemble. The give and take of active 'listening' and playing in the moments. The production will stand or fall on the playfulness of all the actors, together, to make those moments work. It is difficult to achieve but it is the ideal for the artist in the theatre. It is the objective of the actor/director/teacher Stanislavsky and his co-artistic director Nemirovitch-Dantchenko that revolutionized the approach to acting at the beginning of the last century, and is the heritage, and at the core of every Western 'theatre' enterprise to this day. Not only in the theatre, and obviously, across all genres and mediums, particularly in television and film acting. These two men, along with Chekhov, set the exemplar for the method of what is generally regarded as good acting. STILL. No matter the reactionary 'fads' that have evolved in time and place in recent history and vividly today (tomorrow!).

Then, the expectation of this production, considering the quality of the company, has been tantalizing indeed. I bought my tickets 13 months ago! At $130, each – 4 of them...? No quibbles. Even though it is only two dollars less for the whiz-bangery of MARY POPPINS and the zesty crackling and eye-popping techno wizardry of HAIRSPRAY.

The interesting choices for the enterprise begins with the translation and/or adaptation. I know maybe twenty or more versions. Every year new publications appear, with most engaged, interesting, contemporary writers attempting the task. Each one of them with their own mode of expression and poetry and uniqueness; from Christopher Hampton; Tom Stoppard; Pam Gems; Martin Crimp, David Mamet, among many others in recent times. The famous Australian and still highly usable version is that of Aubrey Mellor and Robert Dessaix from the late Seventies–early Eighties. But, I do believe it is imperative to find the contemporary Australian/English voice for the translated works to keep the vernacular accessible and relevant for the audience's comprehension of the writer's intentions. It requires careful and patient work. The role of the translator/adaptor is fraught but undoubtedly as thrilling to do as it is for the actor to further “translate” the result into flesh (I read a very interesting essay by Julian Barnes recently on this very topic in relation to the new MADAME BOVARY text by Lydia Davis in the London Review Bookshop recently published – do look).

In this case, Andrew Upton has adapted it with assistance from the Russian Language expert (and actor) Alex Menglet, further advised and guided by the Director, Tamas Ascher (he, a non-English speaking Hungarian) and his Dramaturg/Interpreter, Anna Lengyel. Mr Upton has recently adapted THE CHERRY ORCHARD for the Sydney Theatre Company and also, to mostly good reviews, Gorky's THE PHILISTINES (c.2008) and Bulgakov's THE WHITE GUARD (2010) for the National Theatre, London. The Russian oeuvre a familiar territory for Mr Upton, of late.

In the program notes Mr Upton tells us: “Tamas' first instruction to me for the adaptation was to be aware that each of the characters spoke very simply and plainly in the original...These characters are brutally honest and straight-forward. As Tomas put it; each line has to be as simple and uninflected as a stone dropped into a pond.” This text has a direct clarity and unencumbered expression , often potently blunt, in its characteristics, with only, to my personal and prejudiced ears, an occasional 'clang'.

The most disputed part of the textual solutions among my group of audience was really in the variety of Australian dialect that was used by the company of actors. There was a highly Educated Australian English used for example by the Professor (Mr Bell), Yelena (Ms Blanchett), Astrov (Mr Weaving) to broader and broader Aussie sounds from Marina (Ms Weaver) to the most extreme, Sonya (Ms McElhinney). Representative of class, education, city or country location??? The foyer was full of lively debate!!! The appropriateness of the choices? The successfulness of the choices? Did they clarify or obfuscate the story telling? Just where are we? These questions asked even less experienced theatre goers. Much opinion in the interval.

The actors let loose on this version: Cate Blanchett; Hugo Weaving; Richard Roxburgh; John Bell; Jacki Weaver; Sandy Gore; Hayley McElhinney; Anthony Phelan and Andrew Tighe. Actors of outstanding reputation, a brief glance at the program resumes impressive, indeed. No false celebrity here, only stellar artists who have earned the opportunities given them.

Mr Phelan as Telegin was outstanding in the sympathetic reading, that he gave this man. Seemingly in a cursory reading, a peripheral and merely supportive role in the play, in Mr Phelan's hands what was revealed was the contrast that Telegin in the schemata of the writing represented. In the midst of the 'love' lorn, unrequited or bereft in the action of the play, we have drawn by Mr Phelan, a faithful lover who holds firm to his inclinations even at the extreme detriment of his own happiness. One of the few characters in the play that has a resigned acceptance of his fate. An actor of invention and precision demonstrating that there are no small roles in Chekhov. All of them have a life and an integral contribution to make. Ms Weaver as Marina plots her way through the small opportunities given her to give a stabilising centre to the household, offering gentle wisdoms and direct advice and physical comforts, ultimately a 'safe harbour” of literally open arms for the unhappy people about her. Warmth and simple honesty (a remarkable contrast to her work in the film ANIMAL KINGDOM which I have heard described as ‘Lady Macbeth in stretch pants’!!!). Sandy Gore as the matriarch, Marie, bewildered, bothered and bewitched by her idolization of the professor, is especially curious in her flustered and devoted commitment to the literate and literature about her. Pamphlet following confusedly, pamphlets of opposite opinions – a would-be 'book clubber' with no book club to discuss her concerns with. Her surrender to her circumstances, patient and simply necessary for her survival in the country life of the play. A poverty of intellectualism swamping her to comic mockery. A frump of diminished and diminishing influence.

John Bell as Serebrayakov, the self absorbed, selfish catalyst of the dramatic action of the play, the planned selling of the estate, demands that we find him repugnant and still pathetic. The gamut of the possible human facets of this crumbling being, asking us to give irritated judgments of character and yet sympathy for his predicament, are drawn with pin point accuracy. A spoilt child in the guise of a man of fame and literary fortune, both to be despised and yet pitied. The simple embracement of Serebrayakov's own arrogance, the final petty gesture that triumphs in the world of the play as he exits the estate that he has just disturbed irrevocably, and lustful flickers of strained power in his kissing and needy demonstration of ownership of his wife in the second act, contrasted closely with his obvious physical inadequacies, adds layer to layer of his invention as each act unfolds, with delicious relish. The sense of the rotting human holding determinedly to his 'majesty' sadly accurate, the physical characteristics around his 'gout' and the quavering pitch of the desperate vocal qualities that once were vibrant and sonorous stretched to their limits in the quarrel with Vanya in act three, signal the fall into nearing and feared mortality. A sad specimen outwitted and worn down by nature. Time stands still for no-one, not even the 'intellectual'.

The towering performances in this production are those of Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett.

Mr Weaving presents Astrov as a man on the cusp of sliding fortunes: professional and personal. The tragedy of losing a patient under chloroform on the operating table becomes a re-iterated 'turning-point' in the consciousness of the man: his capability in his profession is under siege; his masculinity also under stress as he sniffs out like a dog at the end of its fertility urges, the opportunity for the 'Don Juaning” of the wife of the visiting professor. Standing wide-legged with his hands on hips, his head held high, chin jutting in challenge; dancing wildly, almost abandoned to the improvised clamour of his drinking companions; the well educated baritone vocal notes tonally attempting seduction and failing. Mr Weaving indicates the spiralling depression in the first scene with his gentle banter with the wise and wily caretaker of the lives on this estate, Marina. She admonishing his declining physical appearance, it becomes clear that vodka has become the tool for his means of lessening the pain, and throughout the play, Mr Weaving cleverly points to its insidious creeping in on Astrov's life. Every subtle Chekhovian inference is seized excitedly by Mr Weaving. The final moments book-ending the character delineation with his addicted need to the vodka salute, refusing even the sopping possibility of bread to lessen its potently insidious poison, not even able, by now, to keep his promise of giving it up, the now silent Marina noting and sad. And like the maps that Astrov has drawn to demonstrate the demise and corruption of the countryside, Weaving has 'mapped' the degeneration of a 'demon' for world betterment, humanly defeated and collaborating willingly with it. We envision the husk of the present manhood of this Doctor, tragically, but empathetically. Fate will not be kind in the decline of a man of much promise. Platonov re-visited.

Ms Blanchett creates for Yelena a woman recognizing the loss of her youth and the possibility, imminently, of the sparks of her potential has a whole human being, being extinguished forever. Like “Autumn beautiful and sad” Yelena struggles between her sense of duty to her husband and the frustrations of unrequited sexuality, even love. She, too, like Astrov, finds respite in alcohol and in an anesthetized state plays recklessly with the hopes of the na├»ve Sonya: living, vicariously, a sex courtship for Sonya. Ms Blanchett in this performance rides a fine line between the pathos of the woman and the absurd ironies of her situation. Employing her usual adeptness with language with the verbal and mental wit that we are accustomed to, Ms Blanchett explores, more than she has done before, her instinctual physical comic skills. Long-limbed, the equilibrium of her balance is daringly challenged, teetering on the edges of collapse and yet teasingly righting itself again only to flop in another direction. The drunken scene with Sonya in Act two, truly hilarious. An impressive metaphor for Yelena's unconscious behaviour? The comic characterization is masking pain and frustration that cries out to please herself: to play the piano, to heat the mermaids blood, in a red tight fitting full length dress, with gay abandon on the old sofa in the clumsy entanglements of a has-been doctor, environmentalist and Don Juan, but ends in the convention of being the wife of a professor of literature, suited and gloved up in grey: tight and conventional. The promise of emaciated, lifeless greyness.

It is especially in the scenes between Mr Weaving and Ms Blanchett that we see acting that is burning brightly, improvisationally, in front of us. It has a sense of fun, wickedness, unexpectedness about it, of two artists in complete trust of each other. The map reading scene in Act three a tantalizing sub-textual 'dance' of longing and withdrawal: funny, tender and ultimately tragic: a quintessence of playfulness – of good acting..

Mr Roxburgh's Vanya is an explosive force of frustration, ignited powerfully, when in the full ignition of anger. The possibility of an 'intellectual' life sacrificed for the mundanity of the hard work of running an estate, boiling over. In contrast, however, the great opportunities of vulnerability in the dilemma of Vanya are relatively fudged. The confrontations with the professor in act three demonstrates a consistent tendency to go off – voice and throw covering energy to the floor when that is demanded of him. It almost appears an apology for weakness that contrasts with the few occasions when genuine overwhelming self pity strike at the heart of his character's situation. Mr Roxburgh is thrilling in his generous 'giving' to the other actors but there is considerable less 'taking' by him, except on his terms or needs. Not much spontaneity. There is an appearance of pre-conception and of an actor at work, (secondary activities, the scratching of the hair, for instance, in moments of character stress , over drawn) dominating the choices on stage, a striving for a pre-meditated enactment of the scenes- outside the ensemble efforts. Flawed.

I have always felt that Nina is the centre of THE SEAGULL, so I feel Sonya the centre of UNCLE VANYA. Nina is the two-pronged agent of Chekhov's dramaturgy in exploring Love and Art, the preoccupation of THE SEAGULL. Sonya is the bearer of Love and Work in UNCLE VANYA – Chekhov's thematics (?). Ms McElhinney plays the theme of love, besotted, innocent, naive love, to open mouthed expressions of ecstatic need in most of the first three acts of the play. The motivations and consequences of it clearly relished. This Sonya's presence is one of broad peasant simpleness and love-sick longing and it overwhelms the other strand of her character's preoccupation until the last section of the third act of this production. Then, Ms McElhinney takes hold of the great silent moment Chekhov gives her in the pell mell of Vanya's shooting farce, going on around her, taking heart-breaking refuge in the arms of Marina. We see her absorbing the truth of her fantastical longings, as revealed by Yelena, and moving to resilient resolution, so that in the fourth act, work is her regained preoccupation – it will overwhelm and deaden her grief and pain. She drags the heavy table, without assistance, to the position necessary for the estate work which has been erstwhile neglected. But the significance of work to Sonya has been diluted in this production, since I felt the opportunities that Sonya demonstrates for work in the earlier part of the play, provided by Chekhov in his scenario, were not played with enough clarity. They are subtle but are there to be marked, to be made to be remembered by the audience. Here they were buried in the 'goofy' love sickness of this Sonya and so the characterization and the Chekhovian balance for Sonya was not as well planted for this great acceptance of the duty of life thrown upon her shoulders that climaxes the play. And so, oddly, the great closing speeches that Chekhov has given Sonya, which are generally, and genuinely moving, lacked that focus and maybe the production lacked completeness subsequently. “We shall work, Uncle Vanya, we shall work.” was barely noticed, by me (I also observe that not having this Telegin accompanying this scene with guitar as indicated by the writer may have also distracted my attention as I was watching this Telegin attempting to locate on his portable transistor radio, music from the distracting static of the radio-wave universe.)

The acting, then, genuinely strong, but in my estimation, occasionally, flawed. It prevented, for me, a fully cathartic experience from being had.

My biggest problem, however is in the directorial decisions made by Mr Ascher and, assumedly under his direction, his creative team: Set Designer, Zsolt Khell; Costume Designer, Gyorgyi Szakacs. The program notes are full of the contemporary cultural responses to this play, by others, in Tsarist Russia, and there is not a single clue to the actual period or it's relevance for us, that this production team has placed the play. There is no reference to the new historical circumstances that these familiar characters are living out their lives in or to any intellectual rationalizing of choosing this specific time. As to why it is a vital adaptation for an audience in Sydney, in 2010.

Taking Set properties such as the refrigerator, the portable transistor radio, etc, the fashionable clothing of Serebriakov and his wife Yelena, (and costuming of others as well), the sound design of motor cars and bikes (Paul Charlier), it would seem to be early to mid 1950's. This would mean that most of these characters living in Russia on an estate (farm), not to distant from Moscow, would have survived through one of the most dramatic eras of Russian history. Several botched revolutions, famine and agitating Marxists both in art and day to day life, World War 1, a revolution with Lenin a triumphant leader, the assassination of the Tsar Nicholas and his family, the end of Romanov political domination, a long and bloody Civil war, the rise of the 'Red Tsar, Stalin, with his persecutions and tyranny both socially and economically, World War 2 and German invasion, starvation and a decimation of millions of lives, the re-establishment of a more desperate Stalin, and, finally the relative enlightenment of Khrushchev. I saw not one of these events suggested in the production acting of this company. It was the Tsarist idiom that affected the choices of this company.

Taking basic Stanislavski method into account, What? and How? a character achieves their objectives does not necessarily alter too much, whatever the period. But the Why?, why a character does what he wants, will be affected and the sense of Who?, When? Where? will be profoundly different. Take for instance the Professor Serebreyakov and his wife, Yelena. The wealth and style demonstrated by the costuming of these two Muscovites, especially her provocative red dress, would in my understanding of the period reflect a very privileged status. To dare to flaunt such wealth and foreign influence in the time of Stalin/ Kruschev shows a super confidence of their position in the world – are they members of the Politburo? Are they invulnerable to criticism? If so they hardly require permission from the family for actions of their wants. The reaction of the people on this estate, relatives or not, seems to be very muscular and unafraid to make offence. I would have assumed that the stakes for this family are so much higher given that this Professor demonstrates a position and favour from Stalin/Kruschev, that would hardly require permission to take charge of this estate's affairs.

Are Vanya and Sonya part of some Land Collective involved in the success of a Three or Five year plan? How efficient are they in this system? Can they even sell this estate, for instance, in Soviet times? Is it not part of the great communist people's ownership? Did Vanya, Astrov, Telegin, Serebryakov serve in the forces in any of the upheavals of their shared history?

It is just this kind of decision of time shift that excites my imagination, to see how it can inflect and infect insight into the behaviour of the characters. But when it is so obviously neglected in the creating and playing, it looks, in the action of this production, like a superficial appropriation of a purely visual aesthetic. Appearance, a LOOK, becomes it's justification over meaty, insights. Whatever the attractive appearance of the design aesthetic there are also political and sociological consequences to the lives of the living characters we are watching. When looking at, for instance, Milkhalkov's Academy Award winning film BURNT BY THE SUN, set in the madness of Stalin's fading life and reign, the tension and status between the country and city are enormous and threatening, no-one is not alert to the power emanating from Moscow, even for family members – after all there is no personal/family life in the Soviet. No matter how sexy, this Yelena looks in the third act costume of a clinging red, full length dress, it provides interpretative demands that are blatantly important and interesting in the period of history that this Vanya story is being told in. They are not addressed by this director.

Mr Ascher is here on invitation by this company, inspired by this creative team's work on a Sydney Festival presentation of Ivanov, two years ago. It, too, was set unconventionally out of period, but whether because IVANOV is a less well known play or because the Hungarian Company were able to bring the design aesthetic to life and justification, it seemed to work. Here, it has the feel of imposition. Externally worn, demonstrated but not part of the organic action. This production of UNCLE VANYA felt like a conventional reading of the given circumstances of these characters based upon a study of Tsarist times, dressed arbitrarily in an attractive aesthetic that directorialy or production-wise was not addressed as far as the history of the times of that chosen aesthetic were concerned or the method of acting this material (or any, really) requires, if one was truly, scrupulous of the offered detail.

Recently, the Belvoir Street Theatre presented another Russian play Arbuzov's THE PROMISE, under the direction of Simon Stone. It consisted of three acts, set in three distinctly crucial dates in Soviet history. This play is basically a love triangle, and superficially on the page can be easily played in a soap opera mode and still be acceptable. But if one were to regard the pin pointed definiteness of the eras of the three acts selected by the writer, (Stanislavsky writ large) the sub-textual influences, the unspoken but vitally important cultural tensions underneath the motivations of the characters, the Who? Where? and especially When? of the times, it becomes the greater part of the acting of the play. It is the sub-text of period that makes THE PROMISE a formidable and great play. If you merely present the top layer of the writing, you only give part of the play. No matter how good the acting may be – it appears to be a lesser work and at most a pot boiler of a soap opera. This is what happened to Arbuzov's play under Mr Stone's direction. It is what may have happened for some audiences when they saw Mr Ascher's production of UNCLE VANYA at the Sydney Theatre. Certainly the inexperienced Chekhov audience found the play dull and not relevant. They loved the acting, hated the play. This lack of applied rigour to production decisions is, for me, a constant disappointment in directorial decisions in Sydney Theatre, in recent times. It certainly marks the difference of quality of a lot of Australian work when compared to the best International work I have seen. Near enough is definitely not good enough, in my experience. If you don't think your decisions through – don't offer them.

“I wrote it all down”, said Chekhov. It is in the details. If you re-write the details and then neglect to have them bare influence on the production, something becomes unsatisfactory. Truth, I guess. Catharsis, too? Quality, certainly (other artists, some great artists, lose reputation over careless arbitrary decisions by appropriating contemporary artists – auteurs. Will we ever see THE PROMISE in Sydney again? Not if those audiences have a memory. Tentatively, I ask, will we ever have an audience for UNCLE VANYA again, if it does not have the casting fire power involved? Good luck Belvoir and THE SEAGULL with Judy Davis steered by Benedict Andrews later in the year. I'll be there for sure but some of my Vanya friends will be there only because Ms Davis is in it. Who would miss the opportunity of seeing Judy Davis on stage, at last? “Chekhov is boring”.)

UNCLE VANYA is a re-write of an earlier published and performed play, THE WOOD DEMON (1889). Some of the characters of the original still exist, some have disappeared, some have been amalgamated, some are new altogether. But what distinguishes THE WOOD DEMON and an even earlier play, IVANOV, is that both these two earlier plays are, although with tragic elements, optimistic and comic in tone. Chekhov very particularly, out of a need to confront Stanislavsky's penchant for melodrama as a preferred solution to his theatre direction, sub-titled THE SEAGULL: A Comedy in Four Acts (as, later, he did THE CHERRY ORCHARD). The Wood Demon was sub-titled by Chekhov as a comedy. UNCLE VANYA was carefully sub-titled: Scenes from a Country Life. The mood in this play was not as optimistic as the earlier youthful invention, VANYA'S comic elements essentially autumnal, marked by a sense of physical decay, all of them facing limited time projections. Chekhov embracing his own mortal illness may have moodily reflected his own autumnal decline. There is a darker mood to this play.

I felt there was a stilted effort by some of the actors to burlesque the comedy opportunities in UNCLE VANYA, almost as if this play was a direct descendant of the one act comedies (THE PROPOSAL, THE BEAR etc). Over drawn, over illustrated and sometimes an imposed, forced, inappropriate sensibility for comic physical exaggeration or stakes. Silliness of rehearsal daring, that needed refining or editing in the final decisions, shown to us in performance. This was true, I found, of Mr Ascher's IVANOV. I was not as big a fan of that production as others were, finding some of the leading actors forcing the comedy uncomfortably. The afternoon I saw it, there was an imbalance, between the pathos, the tragedy and the burlesque – being funny at the expense of the truth of the circumstances of the production. Worse, playing to rote rather than in the live moments evolving in front of us. I saw UNCLE VANYA late in the season (2oth December) and there was some feeling of moments that were no longer working but still played to the hilt, an uncomfortable staleness and futile action enacted that were no longer totally convicted. Comedy that lacked justification.

These Scenes of Country Life were not as comic, as in, ‘isn't life funny’, as Chekhov throughout most of his great literary heritage, determinedly presented to us. The foibles of the ordinary human. The ordinary as extraordinary, with a huge ironic grin. These people peopling his worlds were real, not clownish and definitely not clowns. Their comic element arose from that reality and the incongruous but truthful observations, not from deliberate funny business. The Sydney Theatre Company production seemed to err in that direction.

So, to my observation of the joy of seeing great plays often and the ability to contrast and compare other productions. The St Petersburg Russian company production wins hands down. One of the qualities that makes Chekhov great and is essential, is the allowance for time to be played out for as long as it takes. The “scoring' of Chekhov's text is meticulous and it demands tempo as written. The Russian production of UNCLE VANYA, I remember as almost four hours long. The Sydney Theatre Company only two and three quarter hours. Truths rushed? I remember the great and surprised response to that Sydney Festival presentation and remarked that isn't it strange how a Sydney audience finds no reason to complain about the length of this performance. The courage to live out the moments in the life tempo, not to feel a need to entertain an audience, by being funny, was observed and absorbed by the festival audience, through supreme belief in the characters and there human dilemmas as presented by this elegant and truthful troupe of actors. This despite the long international tour of the production. Lessons to be still absorbed by some Australian actors and taught as guidance and still propagated by the works and theories of Stanislavski, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and brilliantly demanded by the Master of modern dramatic literature, Anton Chekhov.

UNCLE VANYA, a mitigated success. Much to appreciate, and much to bemoan.


James Waites said...

Fascinating response, Kevin. A very complex production, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses. Daunting for the reviewer - no simple thumbs up or thumbs down will do. I am going to have a go myself when get the chance - still a backlog. Meanwhile, thanks for bringing all you know about Chekhov - reading and productions you've seen - to this detailed and carefully considered evaluation. Some very different questions came to my mind while I was watching this Vanya; so you encourage to get with it and try and find the words to fit.

Chris T said...

Hi Kevin. Thanks for this piece. I always enjoy the detail of your responses. It's provoked some great thought and discussion amongst my friends and I. Thank goodness theatre blogs.

Anonymous said...

Bravo KJ. I agree with almost every word. Particularly about the setting – time and place etc. Not only was the year confusing (with the consequent issues of the state of a post-revolutionary Russian) but the accents were a tad mysterious. Waffles’ transistor radio looked 1960’s to me. Suspension of disbelief can only be held for so long. Of course all the performances were very good, but was there really a sense of  ensemble or family or a common goal? What was offered was a series of precisely tuned star turns. I won’t say any more – too difficult and dangerous. Will leave that to you!
What is equally important is a discussion of the impact of yet another STC imported creative team. What real benefits trickle down to audiences, casts and crews? With all due respect to the Hungarian team (director, designers and their assistants) what is the residual benefit from their visit? What did it cost? Who footed the bills? Could similar amounts (or less) have been spent on other company activities with local creatives? Does the Board or staff or funding bodies discuss such matters? While Tamas Ascher did apparently visit NIDA and speak with students what else can one take away from his time in Sydney? There must come a time when the visits of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stephen Soderburg, The Steppenwolf Company, William Hurt and Todd Van Voris – and whoever else is scheduled to work for  the STC in 2011 and beyond  (eg Luc Bondy) – can be assessed. When we the people might be given an opportunity to comment on such developments.
Formal or informal, indoors or outdoors, half a day or a full day I think the STC Management should consider hosting a forum or some such event  for subscribers, the media or other workers in the game. Might be good PR. As I’m sure you are aware the increasing internationalising of the STC is increasingly worrying a growing number of theatre workers in Sydney and elsewhere.
Thanks again. Your reviews add greatly  to the analysis of the efforts of lunatics everywhere.

Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful, perhaps slightly pedantic, review, but so much loving care in evaluating production. For the first time I thought seriously about the importance of setting a play in particular period. Before, I'd always thought it didn't much matter, the 'truth' would out in good deep acting, but the historical context in Chekhov IS important-- Kevin Jackson is right in stressing. Doesn't mean you can't change the time but if you do, I now see the need for a lot of homework about the 'when'. If the setting is l950s Stalin era, for instance, the director and actors would need to steep themselves in the period. It ought not to be a fanfare of Stalinist stuff, just the director and actors KNOWING where/when they're at. I can imagine it being so much richer then.

Will be interested to read James Waites' review.

Aubrey Mellor OAM said...

Thanks Kevin for fulfilling G.B. Shaw's first requirement of a theatre review: to evoke what it was like to be there on the night. Your review also makes me deeply regret not making the effort to fly in just for this Vanya.
Two comments worth adding to Kevin's erudite sharing: first, the subtitle to Dadya Vanya (should be translated as 'Uncle Jack') Scenes From County Life, is very deliberately an acknowledgment of Turgenev's major influence on this play; second, the structure of Vanya, (as Kevin says, rewritten from Wood Demon) is Chekhov's brilliant offering to the modern theatre. Seagull’s flawed structure is re-thought; and, brilliantly, the climax is brought to Act Three, rather than the end of the play. With that move (a new structure he then retained for Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard) Chekhov acknowledged that after a disaster life goes on, and the audience is very interested in how life goes on, what happened to them all. If one considers the Fourth Act of a Chekhov masterpiece as post disaster, post holocaust, post damage, one is actually looking at the contemporary play. Modern plays don't need the exposition act, the development act, and nor do they need the climax (damage) act: they are focused (as are we all) on the post damage, in the post-damage act. The 20th Century, with its series of major conflicts, was almost all post trauma, post damage - and signs are that the 21st will surpass it in horrors. Waiting for Godot is of course the most brilliant example of a post-damage play; and I am of the opinion that we would not have that play - nor absurdism, for that matter - without Chekhov. Vanya should be known as the play that brought a brilliant new structure onto our stages, and pointed the way for future writing. One can see most short modern plays as parallels of an Act IV in Chekhov's last three masterpieces.

Thanks Kevin.

Aubrey Mellor, Dean of Performing Arts, Lasalle, Singapore