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Among Chekhov’s four masterpieces, Uncle Vanya (1897) is singular in several ways. It’s the only one to have a predecessor play behind it (1889’s The Wood Demon), so that we can see how Chekhov’s technique and his view of life had altered: bleaker, more streamlined, more cruelly comic. Of his great quartet, it’s the only play named for a single character—odd, since its panoramic quality matches that of the others—and it’s the only one to carry a subtitle. Scenes From Country Life, Chekhov labeled it.
Both The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard also take place on country estates sent into upheaval by ultra-urbane visiting owners, but the combination of title and subtitle make Vanya pivotal. Like his hapless, overwrought hero, Chekhov himself is turning away from the city life that had been the subject of so many of his early newspaper sketches and short stories; he’s rejecting the academic, categorizing formulas with which Russian thinkers then viewed literature to go his own way, just as Vanya repudiates his mother and Serebryakov. Vanya’s repudiation, with its multiple motives, its frenzy, and its failed homicide, has a farcical quality that suggests country buffoonery, with which Chekhov, who approached this tone more cautiously in The Seagull, in effect declares solidarity. In his next two plays he will be less afraid to let his characters become bumpkins for a moment. Even at its saddest, life offers infinite possibilities for bumpkinhood.
The Hungarian director Tamás Ascher’s production for the Sydney Theatre Company (City Center), though not the most fulfilled or the most strongly unified Vanya I’ve ever seen, shows a solid and often powerfully effective understanding of the work. One further paradox of Vanya is that it has a starring role—the Professor’s beautiful, much younger wife, Yelena—which is not its central focus. A glamorous star in the eyes of all the men around her, Yelena (Cate Blanchett) is really just a confused, helplessly adrift soul like everyone else, trying to be useful while only making things worse. Ascher seasons Blanchett’s celebrity charisma with her freewheeling physicality and her self-ironizing humor to create a vibrant figure, who naturally magnetizes gruff, countrified Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) and his pal Dr. Astrov (Hugo Weaving). Other figures, alas, are more crudely played—surely Vanya’s mother shouldn’t be the mere cartoon Sandy Gore makes her—and some scenes have a distractingly jerky rhythm. Still, Vanya comes across, the fascinating, contradictory mass of tender nuance and bumptious clowning that it is.