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In this summer’s two-fisted World War II superhero epic Captain America: The First Avenger, Hugo Weaving plays the rogue commander of the Third Reich’s “deep-science division,” an industrious man who bristles under the thumb of his lily-livered conciliator of a Führer. He’s developed a line of futuristic überweapons that, as he repeats casually throughout the film, harness ze power of ze gots. Halfway through the movie, he gets to peel off his own face to reveal himself as the Kool-Aid Man.
No, that would be ridiculous. His name is the Red Skull.
Anyway, forget all that pretentious, arty stuff. In Sydney Theatre Company’s gloss on Uncle Vanya—Anton Chekhov’s venerable tragicomedy about a cancer of idleness and overfamiliarity that settles over a Russian country estate—Weaving is at last given license to gnaw some scenery.
Well, by his standards, anyway. In his best-known film roles, Weaving is so precise and disciplined you can practically see pixels in his face—not for nothing did he break into Hollywood blockbusters as a hostile sentient computer program in The Matrix. As Astrov, a tired rural doctor who’s competent but still capable of falling out of a window while drunk on wine and song, this bearded, wrinkled-shirted, two-stepping Weaving is the best of many fine reasons to catch this heartbreakingly rich and richly heartbreaking Vanya, imported for an exclusive three-week engagement at the Kennedy Center after its debut in Australia last year.
Though we’re told in the play’s opening moments that Astrov’s devotion to his patients has cost him his looks and his mojo, Weaving’s take on the character has more than a little Don Draper in it. His unflappability and deep disappointment with the world somehow make him irresistible to the ladies.
This is in contrast to the title character, a widower whose more histrionic disappointment makes him easily resistible. Richard Roxburgh somehow channels enough bile over the fruitless years Vanya has given to keeping the estate together for his pompous brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, to make his erosion poignant rather than irritating. Serebryakov, meanwhile, has remarried, to a woman only a few years older than his daughter. This is Yelena, whose milk shake brings all the boys to the yard. She’s played by Cate Blanchett.
Oh, right: Cate Blanchett is in this, too! Sadly, she does not reprise her Russian accent from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull. No else tries to sound Russian here, either, which is probably for the best. Though Andrew Upton’s translation of Chekhov’s 114-year-old text doesn’t seem to specify a setting or era, the clothes (by Györgyi Szakács) place us roughly in the middle of the 20th century. When the movie star makes her entrance, in her kerchiefed hair and white teardrop sunglasses, she looks for all the world like, well, a movie star.
Sydney Theatre Company brought its Blanchett-powered A Streetcar Named Desire to the Kennedy Center two years ago. (Joel Edgerton, who starred opposite the actress as Stanley Kowalski in that production, was just in the great Aussie crime film Animal Kingdom, for which yet another of the actors of note in this Vanya—Jacki Weaver—was nominated for an Oscar this year. She’s as maternal in this as she is merciless in that. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you won’t spot her.)
Yelena isn’t as flashy a role as Blanche DuBois, but Blanchett’s performance is every inch as visceral. (In his first English-language production, Hungarian director Tamás Ascher has found more opportunities for physical comedy than one expects from Chekhov, and he exploits them beautifully.) A scene in which Yelena tries to suppress her lust while Astrov lectures her about the evils of deforestation—like Al Gore, he’s brought charts—plays like high-toned slapstick, with Blanchett seemingly attempting to wriggle out of her own skin. When Blanchett and Weaving finally do share a brief kiss, their bodies push apart from one another, magnets of like polarity.
Which makes a kind of sense: Blanchett and Weaving have the sharpest features in the cast by a mile. Though we know them from the movies, their almost unnervingly angular faces make them ideal for stage work—you could probably make them out from the cheapest seat in the house.
Their prodigious vocal powers are on full display, too. When Upton decided to have Astrov attempt Yelena’s seduction by calling her a “delicious predator, you beautiful, sleek ferret!” he must’ve known he was aiming those words at his wife, right? (Blanchett and Upton are spouses and co-artistic directors of Sydney Theatre.) Selling the illusion of decay can’t be easy on a stage trafficked by such glamorous beings, but scenic and sound designers Zsolt Khell and Paul Charlier, respectively, pull it off.
As the lights come up on the ruined estate, we hear the sickening hum of flies. Khell’s set—with a large clapboard wall stage right and seemingly haphazard piles chairs and firewood—suggests both the fading grandeur of the place and the taxing physical labor required for its upkeep. Stricken with gout and rheumatism, the old professor has brought his new wife to stay with him at his old wife’s estate, agitating its regulars from their comfortable routines. Vanya resents the intrusion and pines openly for Yelena, calling it an abomination that such a beautiful woman should throw away her vitality by staying faithful to her feeble and insufferably pedantic husband.
Vanya may be driving himself mad with bitterness, but he’s kind of got a point there. Even after he recovers from his gout, the professor shows his young bride no tenderness; he only curses her along with himself. “Have patience,” she tells him. “In five or six years, I’ll be old, too.”
The line gathers no additional resonance from the fact that Blanchett has 15 years on Yelena’s stated age of 27, because she looks ageless. But the play’s existential message of vanishing youth and dashed dreams is in no way diluted by the attractiveness of its messengers. Our only hope, says the doctor, is that “when we are lying in our graves we will be surprised by visions.”
Less familiar but no less brilliant than her castmates is Hayley McElhinney as Sonya, Vanya’s innocent niece, who yearns quietly for Astrov. The way she beams while listening to the doctor diagnose himself as incapable of love condenses the play’s emotional nut graf into a few seconds of wordless performance.
And that goes double for Roxburgh’s slowly dissolving Vanya. When Vanya laments, “I could’ve been a Schopenhauer! A Dostoyevsky!” the complaint echoes down the decades from Chekhov and Stanislavski to Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. He coulda been a contender! Would that every deranged shooter were this hopeless with a pistol, and every actor’s aim for our hearts as true.