Curtain Call

Chekhov’s Banana Peel

Stop staging stuffy, boring productions of the Russian master’s work. He’s much more fun than that.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh.
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya

Photograph by Lisa Tomasetti.

On the dusty gray and faded brown set of Uncle Vanya, Cate Blanchett’s clingy, fire-truck-red dress speaks volumes. It tells us that her character, Yelena, stands out in the Russian countryside as dramatically as a movie star would at a suburban dinner party—and that she’s alluring in a way that might mean trouble. It also sends a message the theater badly needs: Anton Chekhov is the opposite of boring.

Chekhov’s plays are not static and wearily tasteful and above the neck. They are not stuffy, delicate ensemble pieces full of gentle wistfulness. In other words, they are not what so many contemporary productions would lead you to believe. Chekhov is the second greatest playwright ever, but he’s slowly being drowned by misplaced reverence. Thankfully, Cate Blanchett has thrown him a life preserver.

In fact, the entire Sydney Theater production, staged with guts and gusto by Tamas Ascher, deserves credit for finding the urgency and action in this play. Full of slaps and kisses and dancing, it has the wild spirit of a drunken Russian party that spills into the morning. For some, this staging was too busy and overwrought. But that critique is rooted in a common misunderstanding about the essence of Chekhov.

As much as he writes about stagnant lives dominated by regret, Chekhov is also a showman with an optimistic streak. While his major plays appear on the surface to have little plot, their subtext is full of overheated romance and melodrama. Ripe comic scenarios alternate with high-pitched melancholy. Underneath the woeful philosophizing is the excitement of possibility. “It is precisely because Chekhov is so positive a person, such a lover of life, that Russia seems to him so sorry a place: A cage for wild birds, a mantelpiece for stuffed seagulls,” wrote the great critic Eric Bentley.

Yelena, for instance, is often played simply as bored and beautiful, stuck in a sexless marriage with a much older man, the professor Serebryakov. Blanchett, by contrast, performs her as one of Bentley’s caged birds, fighting to escape. Her marriage remains cold, but she kisses her husband (John Bell) with contrived conviction, before turning to inconspicuously wipe off her lips. She is a victim of her beauty, but she victimizes with it as well. As in her majestic starring turns in A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler, Blanchett—who is neck and neck with Fiona Shaw for the title of the greatest stage actress in the English-speaking world—specializes in women reined in by circumstances but resourcefully expressing their will nonetheless.

Yelena drives the title character mad with lust and jealousy, divides him from his friend, the doctor Astrov (a swaggering Hugo Weaving), who also wants her so badly he ignores Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), a plainer woman whose love for him dooms her to heartbreak. Uncle Vanya is a daisy chain of unrequited love that begins with the beauty of Yelena. Hence the importance of that red dress.

Yelena could easily become unsympathetic and remote, but Blanchett is far too intelligent a performer to make her a bland Helen of Troy figure. She complicates the character by giving her a childlike vulnerability and sense of joy. When drunk, she skips across the stage, and in anxious moments, her clumsy awkwardness suggests a sweet innocence.

In the hands of Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, who adapted this version, Yelena is also capable of friendship. Her final gesture is an exceedingly kind one to a devastated Vanya, who stares into a bleak, loveless future. While in most productions, Yelena says something like, “Goodbye, my dear,” here she says, “Goodnight, sweet prince.” This comparison to Hamlet is the perfect flattery to Vanya’s ego (the play is also near to Chekhov’s heart) and reveals a tender sensitivity that mitigates the damage she’s done. Blanchett delivers the line with a nonsexual expression of warmth. Hers is an outsize performance, but also a coherent and deeply human one.

To see how singular Blanchett’s performance is, compare it to another production of “Uncle Vanya,” at New York’s Soho rep, which received rave reviews and is still running. Sam Gold’s production aims for offhanded intimacy and a vague, abstract mood of quiet, contemporary angst. Maria Dizzia’s Yelena wears simple black tights, and slumps her way through the play, a performance marked by passivity. There is no joy here and only mild humor. Like the production itself, her Yelena is played in a minor key. Gold seems less interested in exploring subtext as he is layering onto the script a thick mood of gloom, matched by dark lighting that often hides more than illuminates.

When Merritt Weaver’s Sonya describes the philosophy of the doctor in one of the play’s first major speeches, she is sitting down and delivers her lines flatly. By contrast, McElhinney’s Sonya in the Australian production lights up dramatically, her hips swaying unselfconsciously. She makes you understand that this is a speech about Sonya’s love for the doctor, not just an introduction to his philosophy. Then she goes further, suggesting, through her harsh disagreements with Yelena, her resentment at having competition for his attentions. And after realizing how openly she’s gushed about the doctor, she shows supreme embarrassment. These turns are not some excessive flourish. These moments of passion and pathos are rooted in the play. If that speech is merely a dry explication, the romantic stakes and rivalries at its core of the play are not revealed. Though Annie Baker’s adaptation may be more faithful, it fails to capture the play’s spirit.

To understand the essence of Chekhov’s art, it’s important to look at its roots. He began his career writing advertisements, jokes, and sketches on deadline for magazines. He whipped up stories that included farces and a thriller about a femme fatale murdered under mysterious circumstances. And while this early period is often viewed as an immature phase he grew out of (including by him), he developed the instincts of a popular entertainer, and they stayed with him.

The Seagull doesn’t just begin with a joke that Woody Allen would appreciate— “ ‘Why do you always wear black?’ ‘Because I’m in mourning for my life’ ”—the disastrous play within the play in Act One is also one of the great satires of theatrical pretentiousness. And besides sending up hollow intellectual airs, Uncle Vanya also uses time-honored dramatic conventions. There are two long drunk scenes (in which inhibitions fade), a farcical chase that ends with two gun shots, and the old trick of a man walking into a room and finding his friend embracing the woman he loves. None of this is to criticize the play, just to say that an Uncle Vanya with no trace of vulgarity betrays the work.

Chekhov is famously a pioneer of psychological realism, but that doesn’t mean he created the kind of morose slice of life portraits too many theatergoers have sadly come to associate with his work. Chekhov aimed to portray the world in all its messy complexity. When he turned his powers of observation on the human personality, what he saw was something bizarre and thrilling and not at all banal. The critic Harold Bloom put it well when he observed that Chekhov “shows us how strange ‘the realistic’ actually is.” His plays also show us how despair can be hilarious, levity devastating, and the stakes of an ordinary romantic rivalry preposterously high. It’s bizarre, yes, but so is life.