November 03, 2006

Back to the Future

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Adam Cook

State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse
Until November 4.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Anton Chekhov has often bewildered his associates in the theatre. He used the term comedy to describe The Seagull, a play which ends in suicide, The Cherry Orchard was similarly designated but audiences saw only melancholy and pessimism for the future. Uncle Vanya, developed from an earlier version entitled The Wood Demon, he described as “Scenes from Country Life” – and of these vignettes much has been interpreted.

As the English translator Pam Gems has noted, Chekhov productions have gone through various phases. At first, under the diligent (if frequently perplexed ) gaze of Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre, the dominant mood was tragic and the delivery mournfully slow. Later, the plays were seen as erotic, or as harbingers of revolution and then , as the playwright had already suggested, as comedies. The point, of course, is that Chekhov, the master short story writer and observer of the complexity of character, saw all these elements and, to the consternation of directors, wanted them all represented on the stage.

The task of capturing these rapid shifts of mood and tone, refracted often through subliminal and subtextual detail, continues to make staging Chekhov the theatre director’s great challenge and, inevitably, certain choices and strategies must be taken. In Adam Cook’s lively, gently comic version, the State Theatre Company has made a difficult, sometimes elusive, play accessible and even unexpectedly timely.

The story of Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, aka Vanya, takes place on a country estate owned by his brother-in-law Serebryakov, but actually worked by Vanya and his niece Sonya. Around them sits a motley variety of elderly retainers and Vanya’s friend, the local doctor Astrov who makes regular social and medical house calls. Serebryakov, a self-important literary scholar, infrequently visits the property with his beautiful young wife Yelena but when they do they create havoc with their careless cosmopolitan indifference to practical realities. Events take an even more catastrophic turn when Serebryakov airily suggests that they sell the estate so that he can cash up.

Mark Thompson’s spacious set, features large slab-like facades etched with the outlines of doors and windows while, at centre stage, wooden benches are placed end to end in a vistavision view of the characters as they sit adjacent, but often very distantly from one another. Above the stage is suspended, not a metal samovar, but a huge gramophone horn noiselessly sounding changes beyond the reckonings of the characters in the play. With Kathryn Sproul’s beautifully detailed costumes (a credit to the company’s wardrobe staff) and David Gadsden’s often handsome, always apt lighting, this production is most attractive to the eye.

But this does not divert us from the realities of the play – and characters in crises which take them from absurdity to despair and back again. Much of the impact – and tenor – of the play derives from Garry McDonald’s performance as Vanya. He embodies much which defines the agitated, sorrowful comedy of Adam Cook’s version of the play. The slow moving melancholy in many Chekhov productions reflects 19th century manners but not our own. These days, hyperactivity masks inertia and impulsiveness veils neurosis. McDonald captures that aspect of the character – the self-deprecation in his infatuation with Yelena (played winningly by Elena Carapetis) as well as the anguish of rejection. He also ably mixes desperation with farce when Vanya reaches for his pistol and Serebryakov (a suitably bewildered Don Barker) dives under the table.

There are other memorable performances. As Astrov, Sean Taylor convincingly embodies the emotional nonchalance of a man still attractive to women but doubtful of the redemptive value of love. At the same time his true passion is for the state of the forests and consternation at the degradation of the environment. Chekhov’s views are prophetic and as current as an Al Gore powerpoint lecture.
As the patient, broken-hearted Sonya, Jennifer Speake has poignancy and is especially engaging in her scenes with Elena Carapetis. As the ancients –Waffles, Marina and Marya – Peter Raymond Powell, Bridget Walters and Chrissie Page also fare well in ensemble performance which is paced almost to Feydeau speed, but to good effect.

Adam Cook has given us an Uncle Vanya which is not Chekhov-lite, but pitched in a way that the procrastinations, romantic delusions and mid-life disappointments become recognizable in our own lives and not merely as the distant aberrations of people with three names in provincial 19th century Russia.

“Mania from Uncle” The Adelaide Review, No.304, November 3. 2006, pp.14-5.

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