Back To Russia With ‘Uncle Vanya’

I was lucky enough to make it to one of the last performances of the Sydney Theater Company’s production of Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center mid-hurricane this weekend, which was just an utter delight. I’ve spent dozens of hours watching Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett on-screen, but I had no idea that they were such gifted physical comedians. Weaving falls out a window and does Cossack dances in a tipsy exuberance like nobody’s business, and I’d love to see Blanchett play drunk and funny again. It’s a privilege to have seen them live and in person (ditto for Richard Roxburgh, who deserves to be known here for things other than wearing a pervy moustache and being a creep in Moulin Rouge).

I haven’t seen a lot of Chekov plays, so it struck me just how Russian the script was, which, yeah, obviously, but it still made me reflect on the way I watch things. I’m used to heavily interpreting how characters treat their servants, and to be suspicious of the idea that long-term retainers are actually treated as part of a family, something that Uncle Vanya obviously takes completely for granted without any particular critique. Similarly, it’s hard to watch the play and not hear an imminent serf revolt both in the references to the peasants and in the fact that the family’s spent the entire summer idle, collectively captive to Yelena’s charms. Without being terribly specific, the play is simultaneously tremendously a product of its times and general enough to offer a case study in comedy, tragedy, and general human misunderstanding. I always feel conflicted with this kind of thing: do I try to turn off the part of my brain that’s rummaging through context and just watch the play? Will I learn more about Russia by sinking into the myopia and desperation of the moment without the added knowledge of what’s thundering towards these characters just a few decades down the line?