Red Stitch have chiselled out a very particular theatrical space for themselves over the years – one filled with Australian premieres of contemporary international plays and new Australian work – and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the fusty old masters. The only reason they’ve been able to justify a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is that it’s been adapted by US playwright Annie Baker, the writer of a past triumph for this company, The Flick.
Baker’s approach is worlds away from the kind of thing we’ve become accustomed to from the likes of Simon Stone: this adaptation is set in fin de siècle Russia rather than some vaguely contemporary suburban Australia; the plot and characters haven’t been shorn to the skeletal, as in Stone’s Wild Duck; and the dialogue, while occasionally betraying some modern inflections, is relatively authentic to the period. There’s even a samovar on the table.
The company has gathered a fine cast, made up of core ensemble members like Ben Prendergast, David Whiteley, Olga Makeeva and Rosie Lockhart, but it also has some terrific support from guest performers. It’s the largest cast to fit on the cramped stage of Red Stitch in a while, and there’s not a weak performance amongst them.
The plot is simple, but the emotional nuances are complex. Professor Serebryakov (Kristof Kaczmarek) and his young and beautiful wife Yelena (Lockhart) return to their rural property, which is managed by his daughter Sonya (Eva Seymour) and his brother-in-law Vanya (Whitely). The dashing local doctor Astrov (Prendergast) is also staying, much to the delight and temptation of the women. Everyone is in love with someone they can’t possess, long-held tensions broil in the background, and eventually pandemonium takes hold.
This being Chekhov, the pandemonium is shot through with serious bouts of ennui, and most of the time people complain about being bored, disgusted, miserable and foolish. There has long been debate – notably between the original director, Stanislavsky and Chekhov himself – about whether the play is a comedy or tragedy. Naturally, like all his masterpieces and of course life itself, it is both. The mood can feel almost buoyant until a note of melancholy brings it down, and can seem as bleak as a Russian winter until a moment of levity gets us laughing again.
As an exercise in poise and suppleness, Chekhov is one of the most difficult masters to pull off for actors and director alike, and while there are some major flaws in this performance, the result is largely successful. The first act in particular is very strong. Marta Kaczmarek is able to evoke an entire lost world as the nanny, and Justin Hosking is simply perfection as the scraping, put-upon Telegin.
Prendergast is effortlessly charming and passionate as the doctor, but his second act transformation into a cad is less convincing. n a crucial scene between the doctor and Yelena, Baker has shifted the emphasis in a way that shows him in a more brutish light, and the effect is rather reductive. Whiteley is terrific as the increasingly despairing Vanya, and his descent into manic violence is expertly handled. Kristof Kaczmarek brings a bewildered pomposity to the professor, and Makeeva is suitably droll as Maria.
Lockhart is initially rather forced as the aloof and lugubrious Yelena, staring off into the distance like a late-career Faye Dunaway, but she grows in the role and eventually manages to hint at the deep injustice done to her character by the various men caught in the trap of her beauty. Seymour is also uneven as the grimly fatalistic Sonya, great at a kind of rugged determination but less convincing as a love-sick ingenue.
Director Nadia Tass has obvious affection for the material, and manages the large cast well – although it’s hard to escape the sense that more time was needed in rehearsal. Act II has some pacing problems and the final scenes seem hesitant in comparison to the more robust and boisterous first half. The confusion about the setting is more problematic; the accents are lightly Russian, but some actors, like Prendergast, only apply it intermittently, while others, like Seymour, abandon it altogether. Sophie Woodward’s set design is likewise half-hearted and nondescript.
It’s as if Tass wanted an authenticity she then wasn’t prepared to commit to. This is perhaps a symptom of Red Stitch’s ambivalence with classic texts; they give the impression they’d be more comfortable with Annie Baker’s contemporary works rather than her adaptation of this great play by a dead white guy. It’s a pity, because they’re actually rather good at it. Chekhov is always relevant because his work is about the messy, humiliating, glorious horror of being alive, and actors of this calibre – even in a cramped space on a budget – manage to bring them splendidly, if inconsistently, to life.