October 19, 2006

Drama of sadness and merry whistling

Murray Bramwell

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Adam Cook

State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 17. Tickets $13.50 – 50. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until 4 November, 2006.

Chekhov has challenged directors from the beginning. Stanislavsky found The Seagull such a puzzle he was prompted to invent an entirely new approach to actor training. Of Uncle Vanya, the second of the four great dramas which Chekhov wrote in the last eight years of his life, Stanislavsky declared himself baffled by its “sadness, hopelessness and merry whistling.” He produced a great success, but many would still say he really only nailed the first two out of the three.

In his impressive new production for State Theatre, director and translator, Adam Cook, has also gone for two – this time, the sadness and the merry whistling. That’s fine and perhaps inevitable. Choices have to be made, in tone and pace, and in the elusive balance of tragedy and comedy which Chekhov’s mercurial plays present.

Cook’s production is accessibly brisk in pace, warmly humorous in tone and handsome to look at. Mark Thompson’s striking set has two etched concrete facades of the country house on each side of the stage, with two long wooden benches placed together allowing a panavision view of the characters in isolated proximity. Suspended cryptically above the stage is a huge brass gramophone horn – a reminder of his master’s voice perhaps, a herald of impending change, certainly. Kathryn Sproull’s intricately finished costumes, in fawns and mulberry, grey plaids and stripes, are excellent, as is David Gadsen’s suavely understated lighting.

Among the performances, Sean Taylor’s Astrov (another of Chekhov’s interesting doctors) is an apt mix of sensual cynicism and animated advocacy. The play’s prophetic speeches – on the destruction of forests and environmental havoc to come – have, to say the least, uncanny urgency. Elena Carapetis as Yelena, the trophy wife of the ageing Serebryakov (Don Barker) is believably conflicted in her attraction to Astrov and rejection of Vanya. Like everyone in the house she desperately wants what she isn’t going to get.

Most forlorn in this respect is Sonya, niece to Uncle Vanya, besotted with the doctor and working herself ragged running the estate for her ingrate father. Jennifer Speake brings a quiet dignity and tristesse to the role.

As Vanya, Garry McDonald splendidly captures the agitated inertia of the character and, realising his life’s devotion is now looking ludicrous, he resorts to Keystone pistol shots. It almost looks like sanity compared to the gormless acceptance of events by those around him. Adam Cook is reminding us that the play is about change, not hopelessness. Neither we, nor Vanya, can avoid inconvenient truths and just go back to counting the kopeks.

“Drama of sadness and merry whistling” The Australian, October 19, 2006, p.42.

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