Finding the comedy in ‘Uncle Vanya’

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CHEKHOV expert Geoffrey Borny is back at Canberra REP with his new production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” previewing tonight at Theatre 3.

Sam Hannan-Morrow as  Vanya and Jim Adamik as Astrov, photo Helen Drum.
Sam Hannan-Morrow as Vanya and Jim Adamik as Astrov, photo Helen Drum.

In this adaptation by David Mamet from a literal translation by Vlada Chernomordik, Borny gets chance to test out some of his ideas about the great Russian master, canvassed in his book “Interpreting Chekhov” published by the ANU Press.

Borny, though he says he acknowledges the great debt actors owe to Stanislavski in helping them understand subtext, believes that the ‘dark’ view of Chekhov is a radical misinterpretation which stems from the initial interpretation made by Stanislavski who directed Chekhov’s dramas for the Moscow Art Theatre and who insisted that Chekhov’s plays were tragedies, despite the fact that the author insisted that they were comedies.

Critics and directors, he writes, have largely agreed with Stanislavski and the result has been “a long line of desperately sad productions in which the essential futility of life is presented to audiences, yet nothing could be further from the view of life that Chekhov was attempting to portray.”

photo Helen Drum.
photo Helen Drum.
 When I caught up with Borny as he was putting the finishing touches to the production this week,  he was keen to stress that Chekhov was neither a revolutionary nor an Absurdist but more like a “Darwinian gradualist” who believed in the need for progress. Like his character Dr Astrov, played by that natural comedian, Jim Adamik in one of the most challenging roles of his stage career, Dr Chekov  went around planting trees for the future.

Another thing, “Uncle Vanya”, he says,  “contains an astoundingly relevant depiction of the appalling effects of environmental degradation and perhaps makes us aware of how little has been done to solve environmental problems in the hundred and nineteen years since the play was written.”

Sam Hannan-Morrow gets to play Ivan Petrovich Voynitzky, (Uncle Vanya) a figure whose love for the idle Yelena (Lainie Hart) provides both pathos and laughter.  Borny acknowledges that casting the dynamic Hart as the languid Yelena is providing her with a challenge as great as Adamik’s.

As for the comedy, it is most definitely there to be found in the play to but it is, he asserts, quite wrong to “superimpose comedy”.

“Uncle Vanya”, Canberra REP at Theatre 3, 3 Repertory Lane, Acton  April 29 (preview April 28) – 14 May 14,  Wednesday to Saturday.  Bookings to canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.    

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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