Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Mon Oncle

August 12, 2011

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When did Cate Blanchett become a big movie star? I remember liking her a lot in films. I still do. I always associated her with a sort of refined air with a hard edge underneath that probably stems more from her performance as Elizabeth I than anything. But somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time of The Aviator and her Oscar, that she seemed to jump into that Hollywood stratosphere that makes me inherently less interested in someone’s work as a rule. I think that explains why her performance on stage in Sydney Theater Company’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center caught me by surprise. I’d forgotten precisely how good she is and her performance as Yelena was remarkable. As you may have read recently, Blanchett is undergoing a Renaissance, at least for American audiences, as one of the most impressive stage actors around. Her visits with the Sydney Theater Company have won rave reviews. I can attest that her performance in this particular play lives up to the hype. Her Yelena is not some beautiful, delicate flower, but a robust, if conflicted lusty, full-blooded woman. Her performance all but explodes in the second act, and yet it is not some star showpiece and she never overwhelms the rest of the ensemble.

I shouldn’t focus too much on Blanchett, however, since she is only one element in an ensemble that makes this such a great production. Hungarian director Tamás Ascher has put together a show that is physical and very bruising in a way one doesn’t always expect from Chekhov. There are out right broadly comic moments in his take right from the beginning when the dark curtain is swathed in what sounds like 1930s cartoon music. And there is an element of Punch and Judy the whole time. There is little of the refined nostalgia one often sees in Chekhov, but instead, an extended family grappling with all kinds of passions. There’s Richard Roxburgh as the long-suffering and somewhat jealous Vanya. His niece Sonya, played by Hayley McElhinney, is equally lovesick and frustrated by rejection. A magnificent Hugo Weaving is the doctor Astrov whose desire for Yelena soon brings events to a head. All of these performances are notable for they easily make the characters appear rough and tumble without the actors themselves coming off sloppy. This is not a production of furtive glances, but one of grabbing, mauling, and direct physical contact. The show feels real and lived in, not just spoken about and acted out. The mid-20th Century setting and earth tone color palette invoke Australia more than Russia, but adds to the sense of people living their lives and bumping up against each other in doing so. It's a much more refreshing approach to Chekhov than the rather dreary political version recently seen on stage in London's National Theater where The Cherry Orchard appeared earlier this summer. I, like many in the U.S. saw that as part of the NT Live series in local theaters. But for those of you on the east coast, this Uncle Vanya is the real deal and right in your own backyard. Don't miss it before it's gone next month.



Well, since I haven't seen the play I'll focus on Blanchette, and for me she became a star with The talented Mr. Ripley, a movie so miscast it made the entire thing unbelievable for me. I mean who in their right mind would have chosen Gwenyth Paltrow over Cate Blanchette? It made no sense to me then and doesn't now. And if you've never seen Notes on a Scandal you absolutely must.
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