A revival of “Uncle Vanya” set in 1950s-era Russia and performed in Australian “shrimp-on-the-baahbie” twang? Yes, it works — does it ever — in this sublime revival of the Chekhov classic by the Sydney Theater Company. Two years after their successful visit to D.C. and New York with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Cate Blanchett and colleagues impress again in an exclusive three-week stop at the Kennedy Center.
There are no weaknesses in this lively and penetrating production that benefits from a talented ensemble, a frank new adaptation by Andrew Upton and a nuanced interpretation by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, a renowned Chekhov scholar.
Upton, co-artistic director of the Sydney troupe with his wife Blanchett, offers a plain-spoken version of Chekhov’s thesis on futility. Ascher helms an insightful and energetic ride, coaxing sensitive portrayals of Chekhov’s stoic achievers and one famously shameless narcissist. The tear-filled tableau is embellished with adroit use of comedy, some of it slapstick that in lesser hands would surely cheapen the experience.
Blanchett delivers a compelling performance as the exquisite and self-obsessed Yelena, who sets hearts aflutter while coping with boredom and lamenting her tiresome marriage to the overbearing professor (a suitably pompous John Bell). Playing both victim and vixen with her two admirers, a nimble Blanchett lounges seductively around set designer Zsolt Khell’s spartan estate. She also looks terrific, especially in her slinky red dress, matching shoes and pearls by costume designer Gyorgyi Szakacs.
Another razor-sharp performance is turned in by Hayley McElhinney as Sonya, the estate’s tireless plain Jane whose dreams for love are thwarted by the comely visitor and whose misspent life is defined by the experience. The role is delivered with aching sincerity; perhaps the production’s most delightful scene is Sonya and Yelena’s giddy interplay over their mutual interests while giggling on the floor like school girls.
Richard Roxburgh’s Vanya is riveting as he teeters on the edge of despair, a frustrated servant flailing and ruminating over his wasted life, the incompetent professor and his missed opportunity with the lovely Yelena. All personal pride is willingly discarded as the lovesick buffoon invites rejection, and when the character finally snaps in act three, it’s like watching a volcano erupt.
Hugo Weaving fashions a carefully textured performance as the confident but hopelessly smitten Dr. Astrov. The free-spirited character, who commutes to the estate on his motorcycle, is intensely focused on his interests but blind to Sonia’s affections. Yet all pretensions are lost when he suddenly falls out the window after too many vodkas — a bit of business that perfectly captures Ascher’s refreshing and unforgettable production.