Review: Uncle Vanya

© Lisa Tomasetti

Leave it to the Aussies to deliver a rollicking Chekhov.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s new Uncle Vanya being presented by the Lincoln Center Festival is a triumphant rendition that thankfully highlights the humor of the classic play while not neglecting its pathos. In the hands of this talented company headed by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as Yelena, ennui and bitter disappointment have never been so entertaining.

Hungarian director Tamas Ascher has previously directed relatively few productions in English, which perhaps explains this Chekhov veteran’s talent for delivering a production that is as intensely physical as it is verbal. There are times when the farcical goings-on verge on slapstick, but never without retaining emotional truth.

The play, which has been updated to vaguely 1950’s era Russia, is also more accessible than usual thanks to the wonderfully astute adaptation by Andrew Upton, who, along with his wife Blanchett, is the company’s co-artistic director.

The characters may be as bored, lovestruck and dissatisfied with their lives as ever, but here the play--which in lesser hands can seem depressingly lugubrious--has taken on vibrant life. Such scenes as Vanya’s (Richard Roxburgh) racing after the elderly professor Serebryakov  (John Bell) with a loaded gun and Yelena’s impulsive passionate clinch with the alcoholic doctor Astrov (Hugo Weaving) are performed as wacky slapstick.

Indeed, pratfalls and physical shenanigans abound, with the late night gab session between Yelena and Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) degenerating into a giggle-filled pillow fight.

The evening is anchored by the galvanizing presence of the luminous, long-limbed Blanchett, whose Yelena displays a devastating eroticism that is only accentuated by her tense awkwardness. Attempting to restrain Vanya during his attempted shooting, she falls to the ground clutching his leg, dragged around like a beautifully coifed and gowned rag doll.

Weaving, familiar to American audiences through his memorable appearances in such films as The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a particularly dashing Astrov, making his appeal to both Yelena and the forlorn Sonya more than credible.

Among the superb ensemble, standouts include McElhinney’s sensitive but steel-willed Sonya and a virtually unrecognizable Jacki Weaver (Oscar nominated for Animal Kingdom) as the elderly nanny, Marina. 

The production would certainly benefit from being in a smaller house than City Center, a cavernous space far more suited to music and dance. Most of the audience will be observing the action from a distant remove, and the tricky acoustics don’t benefit the sometimes thick Australian accents, making the dialogue sometime unintelligible.

But New York audiences should be grateful for the opportunity, however limited, to see this production at all. Previously presented at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, it hadn’t scheduled another U.S. engagement until the enterprising Lincoln Center Festival had the wisdom to make it happen. 

City Center, 131 W. 55th St. 212-721-6500. Through July 29.