Ascher, a Hungarian, moves the tragicomedy up in time, from Chekhov’s czarist Russia, circa 1899, to the Soviet era, say around 1955. In the context of a spreading totalitarian malaise, the transposition — aided immensely by Andrew Upton’s punchy translation — works terrifically. Our familiarity with reflections on the oppressiveness of the Soviet era turns this stifling landscape into apt metaphor. So when the magnetic doctor, Astrov, played to beguiling, vodka-soaked perfection by Hugo Weaving, talks of a brighter future for generations yet unborn, we intuit even more profoundly than usual that it’s a future he doesn’t believe in.
The period updating is packaged grandly by set designer Zsolt Khell: The manse of ghastly professorial prig Serebryakov (John Bell) and his younger second wife Yelena (Blanchett) is a shabby husk, with dirty walls and spartan furniture — the kind of place that looks as if it might long ago have been ransacked and stripped bare by emboldened members of the proletariat. It’s a place in which grudges naturally marinate. Vanya, the brother of Serebryakov’s late first wife, resentfully runs the estate with the professor’s daughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) while the older man lives the life of an esteemed academic, accompanied by the beautiful Yelena, whom Vanya not-so-secretly adores.
The Sydney company, run jointly by Blanchett and Upton, came to town two years ago with an astonishing version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was anchored by the actress. In its way, this emotionally in-touch “Uncle Vanya,” buoyed by its entire cast, is just as extraordinary.
Chekhov’s gift for illuminating the essence of each of his characters’ poignant, comic struggles is magnified in Ascher’s treatment. The scenes crackle with spontaneity, and as a result, you often find yourself laughing at bits of behavior because you recognize them as both theatrically inventive and true. Are there not occasions in everyday life when a room rears up in awkward silence? This “Vanya” is filled with stunned moments emptied of conversation: Words frequently fail these unhappy people, which is perhaps why the scenes fueled by drink work particularly well here. Vodka really is the magic elixir of Russian ennui.
No time is this more delightfully apparent than in a surprising reconciliation scene between Blanchett’s Yelena and McElhinney’s Sonya. Their fractious standoff, forged out of plain-Jane Sonya’s unrequited feelings for Astrov and her jealousy of Yelena, melts away after a few naughty shots, and soon they’re on the floor, mischievously, hilariously. McElhinney manages to convey both the earthiness of Sonya — she seems completely the toughened young woman of the soil — and her readiness to yield to childish fancies. Her default posture in the house is perching on a little girl’s chair, in the embrace of the old nanny, Marina (a fine Jacki Weaver).