Nadia Tass’s production of Uncle Vanya for Red Stitch suffers from some pretensions, but a superb cast does the incomparable Chekhov justice. By Peter Craven.

Red Stitch Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

The cast of Red Stitch Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya’
The cast of Red Stitch Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

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Uncle Vanya is one of the four great tragicomedies of Anton Chekhov and therefore one of the very greatest plays of the past 150 years, let’s say, since Ibsen invented modern drama in the 1870s and gave to naturalism and its poetic concentration the formal intensity and credibility that characterised the great Victorian novels from Great Expectations through Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady to Madame Bovary and then Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. No playwright since World War I has a reputation that comes within cooee of Chekhov. Not Brecht, not Beckett, not Eugene O’Neill.

Chekhov invented a form of drama that has been imitated but never remotely rivalled. In it the forlorn cultivated folk of a discernibly late Victorian or Edwardian Russia mutter engagingly of their lost hopes and enduring illusions in captivating arias of self-interpretation or self-dramatisation that are constantly overheard like confessional soliloquies. These extroversions of privacy, which are listened to sympathetically by their fellow characters, are never quite attended to, though the music of each character singing the song of herself blends – that’s the trick – into a wonderfully orchestrated ensemble full of colour and delicacy but also sweeping drama and poignancy as people declare they’re seagulls (no, that’s not it) or rhapsodise over their darling cherries and the place their child drowned, or say with mock solemnity, mock humour, “ta-ra-ra boom-di-ay, I’m sitting on my tomb today”.

And they yearn to be artists, these characters, to be the best kinds of doctors, to enjoy the richness of life in a great city or the love of someone who seems to be a god. They strive to be good or great and they more or less fail, with extraordinary painstaking grace.

Uncle Vanya requires nothing but a handful of the greatest actors on earth, a director who can bring out the music and interplay of their interaction without anyone remotely upstaging anyone else, and a script or acting version that can kindle the magic of dialogue so multivalent and full of inflection and innuendo that it was the inspiration of Stanislavsky – Chekhov’s first director and the founder of Method acting – while also embroidering the pattern of his apparently overheard humdrum patter.

Well, the new production of Uncle Vanya at Red Stitch presents the play in the translation of the brilliant 35-year-old American playwright Annie Baker and it is directed by Nadia Tass, the woman who made those classic films Malcolm and The Big Steal, and whose productions of Baker’s two masterpieces, The Aliens and The Flick, both for Red Stitch, are total inhabitations of those plays and represent the high-water mark of theatre in Melbourne in the past few years.

Alas, Tass’s production of Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya is not quite in this category but it is something. It has a superb performance from David Whiteley in the title role, moving clairvoyantly through the great tangle of dread that defines this driven, defeated man. And the production is full of colour and distinctiveness, with all sorts of sweeping and unexpected moments of poignancy and humour through all the elegance and colloquial brio of Baker’s quite classical translation, though it is hampered, sometimes a bit swamped, by the director’s decision to stage the play in Russian-accented English, which proves to be an impediment to most of the cast. Whiteley takes on the challenge superbly and Ben Prendergast is impressive as the co-lead Astrov, while Eva Seymour as Vanya’s niece and young assistant, Sonya – who’s completely defeated by the Russian voice-mask caper and initially sounds hapless without it – ultimately came home, on the first night, like a bit of an angel, better, because barer, without it.

Baker’s Uncle Vanya is as good as you could hope for. It is supple, colloquial, articulate and holds its own, if it does not surpass, the numerous versions of Chekhov dating back to Constance Garnett (who served Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier and company in the famous 1962 Chichester production) through Christopher Hampton and Michael Frayn. The thing is you can’t paraphrase Chekhov in some substitutional surging paragraph; you have to follow him banality by banality, joke by joke, until the heart breaks.

Baker’s Chekhov sounded flawless as far as you could tell, and it wasn’t made easier by the circumambient “Russian” accents that work a bit like blankets in front of everyone’s mouths, like the Hollywood “Scots” in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth, or the “Italian” English in which they used to dub films such as Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, or the “Asian” English in which everyone – except Peter O’Toole, thank god – could be heard speaking in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

These things are matters of degree, but Uncle Vanya is not Fiddler on the Roof or even Zorba the Greek: it’s not picturesque. It should be performed in the accents in which the actors are best able to convey feeling through apparently ordinary language, bearing in mind they are also playing characters of the admittedly threadbare upper-bourgeoisie of what we know as the Federation period. Something in the vicinity of Melbourne Grammar, South Yarra, Melbourne University. Educated Australian, allowing for a sliding scale and Baker’s very contemporary edge – could do the trick. Somewhere in the broad terrain between Western District and South Suburban.

The trouble with the Russian “ekscents” is that it s-l-o-w-s things doowwn and makes the characters seem needlessly foreign. But impediments can also be opportunities, and it’s significant that the cast does achieve a consistent style out of this elected unhappiness. Whiteley is marvellous and he has a real dignity, a particular sort of believable amour-propre that somehow coexists with everything that is distrait about the character. He captures pretty exactly the way in which Vanya is an admirable, magnanimous character who has been driven by dire circumstance (being taken advantage of) to lose it, in particular the embattled dignity that is the defining quality of this middle-aged man who can feel himself taking a step into nothing but space. Tass’s production is worth seeing for this performance alone, though there’s plenty more.

Ben Prendergast as Astrov doesn’t have the effortless charm that is the key to this character – and captivates Yelena and Sonya and kindles the tenderness of the nanny – but he does have a toughness and a fierceness that carries conviction with the other half of this figure, which is that of a moral warrior who sees himself – half-humorously and feebly but with a subtle moral fineness – as morally derelict.

And throughout this production, with its slightly multicultural pretensions and its monocultural verbal monotony, as if everyone were limbering up to play a Bond villain or a Putinesca, this Vanya never loses the essential thread of Chekhov or his sense of irradiating sexual glamour, of the true and false faces of human achievement, and the power, when all else fails, of human kindness, that wan thing.

Rosie Lockhart as Yelena boggles too much, her great eyes gleaming with self-conscious Slavic allure, but she remains a powerful presence even when she’s looming irritatingly, and we do get used to the characterisation in its lifelike flaunting quality. And that’s true of Kristof Kaczmarek, the Polish actor as the professor, his genuine Slavic credentials a touch more understated. And his wife, Marta Kaczmarek, is entirely credible as the nanny, Marina, with plenty of ebullient warmth.

Eva Seymour as Sonya began uncertainly on the first night, like a nervy drama school ingenue missing the notes, but the performance, which always has a freshness and starkness, grows as the evening advances. She is in fact a runaway from the kind of rhythmical, very contemporary sort of Chekhov we might get if the translation were allowed a bare intuitive interpretation, full of surging unpredictable feeling and not afraid of ugliness or awkwardness or troughs of flatness and was delivered in the vox Americana we all use.

It’s odd, because Seymour’s pas de deux is with David Whiteley, whose performance is the triumph of the other method and indeed of the whole evening because its realism has an apparitional intensity as if we were actually watching a great Russian actor making his way through a loved text in English. But my hunch is that Seymour’s performance will grow, and so will this whole production.

It’s not remotely how I like to see Chekhov performed, which is with a subdued starriness where high style adjusts and tones itself down to the ensemble – as Ian McKellen did when he played Sorin in Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company Seagull, and yet so did Frances Barber as Arkadina – but it does rustle with interest. It’s not the exercise in flawless empathy we get with Tass’s productions of Annie Baker’s own plays – with their pinpoint mastery of the contemporary American style – perhaps because Tass brings such complex critical baggage to Chekhov. But this odd soup of a production has its savours despite the lack of balance in the ingredients.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2016 as "Mutter Russia".

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