— Production photo credit: Tim Matheson
Blackbird Theatre’s challenging farewell to the old year and welcome to the new goes strictly against the holiday grain. Uncle Vanya is the anti-Mary Poppins. No spoonfuls of sugar here. And if the medicine ever does go down, it doesn’t cure a thing.
First produced in 1898, Uncle Vanya is in many ways the darkest of Anton Chekhov’s great plays about the pre-revolutionary Russian middle class. It unfolds like a downbeat piece of chamber music, a small symphony of sadness, lament and regret.
Director John Wright and his classical theatre company, Blackbird, have taken up the challenge with a finely honed production, turning The Cultch Historic Theatre into an intimate Russian country estate house in the round. But not even first-rate acting and an excellent new translation can completely eliminate the feeling that we’re watching a group of narcissists whining their way toward the apocalypse.
The estate technically belongs to Serebryakov (Duncan Fraser), a pompous old art professor who has only recently come to live there with his beautiful new young wife, Yelena (Luisa Jojic). He attained it through the death of his first wife, sister of the title character. Vanya (Anthony F. Ingram) and his young niece Sonya (Cherise Clarke), the professor’s daughter, have run the estate for years for the professor’s benefit, at great sacrifice to themselves.
None of these characters is remotely happy. The professor complains about his gout, his old age, and the fact that he makes everyone miserable, especially his wife who, he acknowledges, finds him repulsive. Yelena is indeed repulsed by him and hates her marriage. Life for her is “boring, boring, boring.”
As in all Chekhov’s work, the misery is shot through with absurd comedy. “What a lovely day,” remarks Yelena in a rare moment of pleasure. ”Yes,” says Vanya, twenty years her senior and hopelessly in love with her. “A lovely day to hang oneself.”
Vanya complains ceaselessly about how his life is wasted, and how life generally is meaningless and absurd. He treats everyone with sarcasm and finds solace only in vodka. Ingram puts a bitter little laugh in Vanya’s voice so all his mockery seems to mock himself.
The other major character is Astrov (Robert Moloney), a middle-aged doctor and environmentalist for whom things have also turned sour. “I don’t feel anything, I don’t need anything, I don’t love anyone,” he laments. But in fact, like Vanya, he adores Yelena and begs her to run off with him. Meanwhile, plain, hard-working Sonya desperately pines for Astrov, who has absolutely no interest in her.
In a lovely iconic Chekhovian scene Sonya confides in Yelena about her unrequited love, not realizing that Yelena is her rival for Astrov’s heart. First Sonya starts crying, then Yelena cries, and soon they’re both laughing through their tears for very different reasons.
Even more than in Chekhov’s other plays, none of these privileged people seems able to do much more than laugh, cry and talk incessantly about their misery. Astrov and Yelena have a couple of moments of intense physical passion. And late in the play the professor reveals a plan so infuriating that Vanya’s cynicism turns to white-hot anger and he actually tries to shoot the professor. But these are the exceptions. And characteristically, they resolve in anti-climax.
The talk can sometimes be eloquent in Peter Petro’s colloquial new translation, edited for this production by Blackbird dramaturg Errol Durbach and director Wright. At one point Astrov pours his heart out to Yelena about the increasing deforestation of the region around the estate. Even worse than the destruction of the natural environment in the name of false progress, he laments, is that nothing useful has been built in its place. This sounds like the voice of Chekhov himself in a familiar dirge for Mother Russia. Typically, Yelena is barely listening, her mind somewhere else.
The ensemble cast is excellent across the board, including small roles by Mary Black as the old nanny, Donna White as Vanya’s mother, and Stephen Aberle, who also plays quiet classical guitar, as a buffoonish pathetic neighbour. On designer Marti Wright’s minimalist set and in her unadorned Edwardian costumes, the performers impressively navigate the difficult subtleties of Chekhovian melancholy in a frustrated, circuitous pursuit of ever-receding happiness.
Astrov, the typical Chekhovian doctor, can imagine life transformed into something different and meaningful only hundreds of years into the future. In the meantime, Sonya says, they must work and endure their suffering. The play provides an ominous ironic counterpoint to these comments, hinting at an offstage drama involving peasants and factory workers, characters from another world that the inhabitants of the estate barely acknowledge.
It won’t be centuries but only two decades until 1917, when those who really had to work and suffer would violently take centre stage and the old world of Russian privilege would truly come crashing down.