August 8, 2011 2:38 pm

Uncle Vanya, Eisenhower Theater, Washington

Cate Blanchett as Yelena and Richard Roxburgh as Vanya in Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vany

Cate Blanchett as Yelena and Richard Roxburgh as Vanya in Sydney Theatre Company’s 'Uncle Vanya'

A frequent accolade for a revered performer is: “You never catch her acting.” By that standard, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, fails quite miserably. The all-star Australian cast, led by Cate Blanchett, is suffused with showy, go-for-broke gestures, even though they aim for the hopeless, incomplete action in which the playwright excelled.

If the hyperactive performance of the cast prevents the evening from administering much emotional wallop, the sometimes overly frenetic production sustains interest. For that give thanks, in part, to the pungent adaptation by Andrew Upton, co-director of the company with Blanchett, his real-life spouse.

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Saltiness marks the dialogue of this often-amusing three-hour show. Richard Roxburgh’s spectacularly mutable Vanya, for example, who with his mother and niece is wasting away on the estate of the retired university professor Serebryakov, describes his ineffectual third-act gun as a “piece of sh*t”.

The evening conveys a dynamic liveliness that Chekhov approximations tend to lack. The mood is more farce than slapstick, while conveying sufficient jollity to make you wonder whether the tea in the samovar – a tall, modern coffee urn, part of the vaguely 1950s Soviet ambiance – hasn’t been spiked with vodka, which also flows in more overt pourings.

Infused with spirit as well as spirits, the production, staged with breakneck physicality by Tamas Ascher, indulges in dancing that carries a near-Cossack kick. But the tremendous electric currents flying around the stage must eventually abate.

Against the browns and greys of the timber-heavy furnishings, Blanchett’s elegant Yelena – Serebryakov’s bored-by-the-provinces wife – stands in stark relief: a creamy confection set against her much older husband – the superb John Bell. But neither Blanchett nor this production rends the heart the way her Blanche did two years ago in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The actors’ accents arise typically from down under. Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nominated this year for Animal Kingdom, is broad of speech and warm of bearing. Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya is showily plain, whereas Astrov, the local physician whom she loves, is given moments of hearty abandon by Hugo Weaving. His look-at-me performance was the evening’s most theatrical, not to mention my favourite, which suggests that old adages about the virtue of non-acting sometimes have notable exceptions.

4 stars

www.kennedy-center.org

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