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.