NAME: Michael Blakemore
DESCRIPTION: A triple threat in “Country Life.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Seasoned stager taps Chekhov for laughs.
Playing a boor and a lech who also happens to be a hypochondriacal theater critic in Miramax’s “Country Life” might be construed as Michael Blakemore’s way of getting even with the breed. After all, he wrote the part in his free adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” and he directed the film as well, moving Chekhov’s rural Russian family to New South Wales following the end of the first World War.
But in truth, Blakemore has rarely suffered at the hands of critics. As a young man he moved to London from his native Sydney after three years of studying medicine (another Chekhov parallel) to pursue an acting career, spending several seasons on tour and at Stratford. That period in his life was rich enough to provide the material for “Next Season,” his first (and thus far only) novel, about a life in the theater. The book was published 25 years ago and is just now being reissued by Applause Books.
It is as a director of West End and Broadway shows, however, that Blakemore made his mark, beginning in 1967 with Albert Finney in Peter Nichols’ “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” and continuing up to the present with a series of acclaimed productions, from Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” to the complex musical comedy “City of Angels” to the current Off Broadway hit “Death Defying Acts,” a triad of one-act plays by David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen.
Blakemore concedes that turning Chekhov’s third-rate academic Serebryakov into the equally third-rate critic Alexander Voysey was “a bit of naughtiness.” But the role was written for Nigel Hawthorne. He, Greta Scacchi, who plays Alexander’s beautiful young wife, and Sam Neill, who plays a hard-drinking, conservationist country doctor, all were committed to the film for years. But Hawthorne scored with “The Madness of George III” on stage and in its film incarnation as “The Madness of King George,” and so when the $3 million “Country Life” finally went before the cameras in Australia two years ago, Blakemore took over the role.
While “Country Life” has more comedy than “Uncle Vanya,” the film is “not un-Chekhovian,” Blakemore insists: “His farces are savagely funny.”
Savagely funny is also one way to describe “Central Park West,” the Allen play that is the ballast of “Death Defying Acts,” the biggest Off Broadway hit of the past season.
Some critics found its nastiness central to a brilliant, bitter comedy. Others found it hard to swallow – and too redolent of the public breakup of Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow. When Blakemore calls it “shockingly vulgar,” he means it in the nicest way.
“It’s like a Restoration comedy,” he says. “It concerns an elite group of people with enough money and enough time to get into trouble in their private lives. It’s about people who are constantly justifying their deplorable behavior.”
But “Country Life” proved to be a more personal undertaking than most of his projects. “It’s the most overpowering thing I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “I spent my childhood on a property like that, and we did have mutton for every meal. It is an Australia which has largely vanished.”