August 23, 2017
The influence of Anton Chekhov looms large in the arts but how many people are familiar with his work nowadays? The Curators' production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ seeks to address this with the first professional mounting of the play in Brisbane in 86 years.
Those familiar with the playwright’s work should be pleased, newcomers may struggle to find context for some of the themes but Chekhov’s words have not lost their potency and these talented actors give gut-wrenching performances.
‘Uncle Vanya’ tells the story of an academic Serebryakov (Warwick Comber) returning from the city to the family country estate with his second wife Yelena (Lisa Hickey). The estate is run by his daughter Sonia (Sherri Smith) and brother in law Vanya (David Patterson). Vanya – the brother of his late first wife – and Serebryakov have an uneasy relationship which is about to erupt. In the meanwhile Yelena becomes the object of affection for both Vanya and the local doctor Astrov (Renaud Jardin) whom Sonia has been carrying a flame for.
As the giant Warwick Comber strides onto the stage it’s not a leap to see how the professor throws off the dynamics of the place demanding much and ignoring the needs of others. The ennui of rich country life may be hard to comprehend to some modern audiences, adoration for the prestige of an academic and the class system may need to be given some context of the time too. However middle age regret and unrequited love needs no explaining and the cast perfectly convey characters largely trapped in their own identities and contradictions. Serebryakov proves a selfish character, but is Vanya any less selfish for wanting to commit adultery with Yelena?
It is rich stuff with this professional cast displaying all the experience and talent they have. None is more affecting perhaps than Sherri Smith as Sonia, she proves a dab hand at comedy when flirting with an oblivious man but a key scene regarding Sonia’s plight is so moving she will bring a tear to your eye. All members of the cast display strong emotions throughout though, often staring out into the audience members challenging them to connect to the rawness of it all.
The lighting by Emily Allen is particularly impressive, at a key moment Patterson’s face is beautifully framed in shadow. Each major scene is marked by Brent Schon taking to the stage with a suitcase to throw autumn leaves or winter snow in the air around the set before it starts. A deft metaphor for the fact that time is running out for the characters to reap anything but a bitter harvest.
It would be interesting to see director Michael Beh and The Curators mount another production of Chekhov leaning even more into updating it for a modern audience. Having said that though, some passages that he wrote at the end of the 19th Century were heard and they still resonate with beautiful and keen insight into the human condition. None more so than that life, whatever it throws at you, must go on.
Dr Daniel Jess
August 20, 2017
Last night I spent some time with a seriously weird family in Brisbane. Or was it somewhere slightly south of St. Petersburg, Russia? Hard to say. #VodkaHangover
The Curators is a new production company brimming with talented professional artists. In a massive win for Brisbane audiences, they breathed new life into Uncle Vanya, a stage play written by Anton Chekhov in the 1890s. Spending nine months in production and three more in rehearsal, the original script was intensively reworked and just like in Harry Potter, was transmogrified into a modern performance packed with laugh-out-loud and emotionally-charged moments.
In a cosy community arts centre in Bardon, which was more than comfortable (warm inside and has a decent bar), we were transported into a culture addled by ironic sexism, forbidden love and risky chance-taking. For a cool, windy Brisbane evening, audience and actors alike were quite hot under the collar by the end of Act 1!
Directed by Michael Beh (former Artistic Director, heartBeast Theatre), who is a powerhouse of creative thought leadership, the cast were well prepared and delivered an almost seamless performance in an exposed, intimate setting. It is very rare for an audience to be so close to the action, and it was a real treat.
Uncle Vanya (David Paterson, current Artistic Director, heartBeast Theatre) epitomised poverty-stricken early Russia with a character that was often very sexy – while at other times, dark, depressing and cold. Vanya was a broken man without a cause, save for his delightful niece, Sonia.
Now, anyone who knows me, knows I don’t mince words.
A real standout, Sherri Smith’s delivery of Sonia was breathtakingly beautiful. With a face, voice and heart made as much for the big screen as for live theatre, Smith’s ability to capture the audience’s silent attention without uttering a single word was true craft. Sonia was everything I hoped she would be.
In typical Chekov fashion, there was dramatic tension written in right from the beginning, with Uncle Vanya taking the kind of verbal bashing one only receives from their mother when they overstep a boundary or ten. When Sonia’s grandmother, Madame Voinitskaya (Amanda McErlean) rose to take control, we stopped to listen – we dared not take a breath! Regal yet understated, outspoken yet not really a societal trendsetter, kind yet detached, Voinitskaya’s character was a true paradox, and it was served up by McErlean with integrity, poise and effective risk-taking. The costumery afforded to Voinitskaya was elegantly Russian, and now everyone wants a faux fur Russian snow hat.
Sonia’s stepmother (Lisa Hickey) often taunted Vanya, the result of boredom in her own life. Hickey presented a pseudo-matriarchal character that evolved nicely, bringing over a leisurely lady of wishful desires and playful cheek; but later, much regret.
Dr Astrov (Renaud Jadin) kept his cool throughout the whole performance, with a suitably subdued characterisation eponymous to the kind, loveable, dorky, successful and intelligent middle-aged doctor you might see on reality American television shows, including The Doctors (sorry, Dr Andrew Ordon)!
Keeping all in line was the affable yet physically drained Nanny Marina (Jan Nary), an hilarious reminder that virtually any problem in life can be solved with the right liquid and a deep sigh or two.
Worthy of another special mention was Sonia’s dad (Warwick Comber). A gargantuan spirit in both physical and vocal dimensions alike, Comber is clearly well versed in Shakespearean stylisms (which undoubtedly underline this current role) brought to life a character with a penchant for blue sky thinking, but no real practical common sense. Comber was everything you don’t want your dad to become. He was funny, loud and didn’t miss a beat.
Sonia’s Godfather (Brent Schon) made some very funny cameos (which I’m not sure were in the original script, but which were absolutely welcome and hilarious)! A great comic performer.
Vocally, each artist was in fine form, though it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the slight imbalance between voices in terms of volume in this small venue. Some need not try so hard to project for sound reach, everyone was quite audible right to the back of the room and male voices do travel more readily when speaking. Granted, this is far from a negative criticism – what a wonderful ‘problem’ to have, unlike many large stages of the world.
The set, decked out with furniture and items iconic to the time and nicely lit by designer Emily Allen, was a big plus in this smaller venue. The audience were on the edge of their seats for most of the night – hoping that at any moment the cast would once again break into a funny, frisky, raucous argument with each other. The often quite gentle soundscapes and music choices (Peter Crees, sound designer) were highly appropriate and supported the story well.
I am told this production of Uncle Vanya is the first independent production of this wonderful Chekov comedy in Brisbane in the last 86 years. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 86 years to see this again – what a treat it was! Do yourself a favour, go and enjoy a couple of glasses of your favourite drink with friends at this wonderful centre in Bardon, and get all the goss on the most insane family you’ll meet this year.
August 21, 2017
On a windswept evening in Bardon in a lovely, intimate venue, a small independent troupe called ‘The Curators’ performed Uncle Vanya. Chekhov’s work was appreciated by a supportive opening night crowd that clearly enjoyed the script’s existential ennui, unrequited love and dark humour.
The first independent production of Uncle Vanya that Brisbane’s seen in 86 years seemed perfectly suited to the frosty night. That wasn’t the only reason this 120-year-old play resonated with the crowd. Perhaps more than ever before, its themes of equality for the sexes, the plight of the working man who slaves away to keep the rich in a lavish lifestyle, and the destruction of the environment and climate are painfully relevant.
While the pacing could have been a little tighter, overall the play’s direction was very clever. Michael Beh had drawn some lovely work out of his cast and crew. There were some beautiful tableaus and moments where one was aware of the actions and reactions of all eight actors onstage without the scene suffering from split focus. His most mesmerising choice, however, was the seasonal transitions in the play. Beh’s whimsy, heart and poetry as a director shone through in those moments most of all.
Lighting by Emily Allen and Sound Design by Peter Crees were both strikingly good. The fight scenes were exciting and convincingly executed. It was a little hard to tell which period the play had been set, due to a few costume and set design choices. The overall vibe seemed to be that of the 1930s or 1940s, but there were a few anachronisms. Some of the casting too seemed a little incongruous, with some performers quite a bit out of the right age ranges. Fortunately, the acting skill made up for that small dissonance.
The standard of acting was very high. On the whole they were realistic and committed to the naturalism. Occasionally one or two did slip into some unrestrained territory, but every one of the actors had superb moments of believability. It was obvious a lot of hard work and passion had gone into the pre-production phase of Uncle Vanya. The Curators showed one doesn’t need a budget in the thousands to put on a great quality production.