Far From Utopia: Cate Blanchett Steals the Show in City Center’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

There’s a pleasant whimsicality to Andrew Upton’s plain-spoken adaptation

Blanchett and McElhinney in ‘Uncle Vanya.’ (© Lisa Tomasetti)

It’s not news that Cate Blanchett is gorgeous—tall, poised, blonde, almost regal, with high cheekbones and delicate features. She is a bona fide, Oscar-winning movie star, and befitting that status, she’s absorbing and magnetic, hugely charismatic.

But as she’s costumed and lit in the splendid Sydney Theatre Company staging of Uncle Vanya now at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, and as the production is designed, she’s more than beautiful in the catalyzing role of Yelena: she’s otherworldly.

Yelena is the younger second wife of Serebryakov (John Bell), an aged, sickly, retired professor who’s more than a bit of a blowhard. They are paying a visit to the sprawling, increasingly decrepit country estate that funds their urbane city life; it was Serebryakov’s deceased first wife’s dowry. The place is a rustic shambles—rough-hewn wood planks for walls, mismatched furniture, a pile of junk steadily accumulating in one corner. Its residents, too, are rough-hewn and rustic, dressed in wrinkled browns and tans, beat up by the provincial Russian life.

But Yelena makes her entrance like a 1950s Italian movie star—a vision in off-white, pressed and spotless from headscarf to heels, clutching a purse and hidden behind sunglasses. She is in the same luxe off-white when she reappears in bedclothes later in that act, and she’s in bright red—gown, shoes, lips—for Act II. Even in the gloomy Act IV, when she has changed into gray, it’s a sharply tailored suit, with her platinum hair piled on her head: the Eva Peron of Petersburg, and equally seductive. (The play is set sometime in the middle of the 20th century, a time with radio but not television, when the men wore ties and jackets but not waistcoats.) When others are dimly lit, a spotlight always lingers subtly on Ms. Blanchett. Yelena is the destabilizing force at this estate; with this design—the set is by Zsolt Khell, the costumes by Györgyi Szakács, and the lighting by Nick Shlieper—it’s easy to see why.

The estate is managed by Sonya (a fantastic Hayley McElhinney), Serebryakov’s daughter from that marriage, and her Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), a weak man who loves Yelena and detests the professor, in support of whom he believes—correctly, on the evidence—he has wasted his life. They live there, in a stagnant state of mild desperation and collective mutual opprobrium, with Sonya’s grandmother, Maria (Sandy Gore), who still believes the professor to be brilliant; Telegin (Anthony Phelan), a onetime landowner and now a hanger-on at the estate; and two servants (Jacki Weaver and Andrew Tighe). Finally, there is the alcoholic charmer Dr. Astrov (the stolidly magnetic Hugo Weaving),  beloved by Sonya, in love with Yelena, depressed by his unimportant life in the provinces and, in a rear-guard action to create a legacy, obsessed with conservation of the land.

They all know they’re miserable; what Yelena’s presence does is force them to acknowledge it. Sonya, who is smart and forthright and knows she is not pretty, is moved to admit her love for the doctor, who rejects her and says he will stop coming to visit. Vanya admits his love for Yelena, only to see that she’s tempted by the doctor and faithful to her husband. The professor wants to sell the estate, but doesn’t. Vanya tries to kill the professor, but fails. Yelena is as miserable as everyone else; she’s in a loveless marriage, bored by country life, and in various unconsummateable love triangles. It’s Ms. Blanchett’s great accomplishment that her Yelena is both ethereal and very earthy.

This Sydney company is using a new adaptation, by Andrew Upton, co-artistic director of the company with his wife, Ms. Blanchett. (The same company brought Ms. Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois to BAM two seasons ago.) It is directed by Tamás Ascher, an accomplished interpreter of Chekhov. (His Ivanov was a hit of the 2009 Lincoln Center Festival.) It’s a plain-spoken script, not flowery or overwrought, and it’s staged accordingly. It’s funny, surprisingly enough, but not jokey (though occasionally slapstick). It’s a style that gives Uncle Vanya a surprising, and pleasant, counterbalance: a somewhat light, occasionally whimsical, wistful despair.

The most tragic figure in the play is Sonya, who is actually inspired by Yelena to make an effort toward happiness. (“Ladies and gentlemen, you must do something,” the professor tells the assembled depressives in his final toast.) Rebuffed, she settles back into her regular life, even more desperate than before because she has given up hope. “We will go on,” she says near the very end, “until we die.” That is the reality, the very Russian reality, of this play: There is work, and there is struggle, and some day there will be death, which will bring relief.

Good things end, too: This Vanya is only in town till Saturday, so move quickly.

editorial@observer.com Far From Utopia: Cate Blanchett Steals the Show in City Center’s ‘Uncle Vanya’