Australian actors and a Hungarian director roll Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ to D.C.

It’s one thing to need a translator to adapt a play. It’s quite another to need one to help direct it.

That trickier arrangement is how Australia-based Cate Blanchett and her writer-husband Andrew Upton, who jointly run the Sydney Theatre Company, decided to proceed with the star-power production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that they’ve brought to the Kennedy Center for its only American stop. Seeking a world-class director for the revival, which began Thursday and features such accomplished Australian actors as Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh and Jacki Weaver, they consulted with British director Declan Donnellan for a recommendation, and he immediately offered up the name of the Hungarian theater artist Tamás Ascher.

“He mentioned the name, and we did our research on Google,” Upton says, adding that as it turned out, Blanchett and he had seen Ascher’s work and liked it, a production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” that had visited Sydney several years before.

That Ascher spoke virtually not a word of English and would have to communicate his thoughts to a cast of nine Australians with vast stage experience, some with Oscar trophies and others with nominations, with their own histories of Chekhov and roles in movies ranging from “Captain America” to “Moulin Rouge!”? Hey, no problem!

“We both love seeing shows in other languages,” Upton says of himself and his wife. He’s speaking by telephone from Sydney, where, at the moment, he’s minding their three young sons. “I think one of the most important gifts of a director, particularly in naturalism, is finding the psychological truths in a play. And those things are best found nonverbally.”

It’s Upton’s new translation of “Uncle Vanya” — the plaintive, turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of lives passing through a country estate where Vanya (played by Roxburgh) pines in vain for the beautiful Yelena (Blanchett) — that’s being used, a version that was tailored to Ascher’s specifications. For example, the time of the events has been propelled forward vaguely to the Soviet era of the 1950s. So what patrons in the Eisenhower Theater will experience is a Russian play, adapted by a native English speaker, as filtered through the mind of a Hungarian. Oh — and performed in all-out Aussie accents.

“It’s a historic assemblage of actors,” Blanchett says, sitting in a Kennedy Center reception room, the Chinese Lounge, with some of her cast mates. The wish of Roxburgh — best known to moviegoers as the preening Duke in Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” — to play Vanya was what set Blanchett and Upton on a Chekhovian course. “And when you have such fine actors,” she adds, “you think, ‘Who can really stretch them?’ ”

Blanchett is an anomaly among movie stars, an actress so loyal to the stage that she presides over one — well, actually, four — for a premier company in Australia’s top theater town. Even more anomalous: This is her second visit with her group to the Eisenhower in two years. In 2009, she starred as Blanche DuBois in Sydney Theatre Company’s glowingly received “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

She had “a fantastic experience” with “Streetcar” in Washington: “It gave us a whole new lease of life on the text and the theater itself is exquisite, so ‘live.’ ” So the decision to make the capital “Vanya’s” one American home was not very difficult.

Still, the engagement, which runs through Aug. 27, is not without its peculiar challenges. “Streetcar” is a beloved American classic with a fine film version floating in memory; while the ache-infused “Uncle Vanya” has many adherents, Chekhov in the middle of a stifling summer could prove to be a tougher sell.

For the cast, though, the stretch began many months ago, in a Sydney rehearsal room: imagine, if you will, enrolling in a course in early-20th-century Russian literature in which all the lectures were conducted in a language you did not know. In that spartan room, they huddled with Ascher and Anna Lengyel, the Hungarian translator and dramaturg who would be the actors’ comprehensible conduit to the director’s animated instructions.

“He’s very expressive. He leaps about,” says Weaver, nominated this year for a Supporting Actress Academy Award for the intense crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” and who plays the family retainer Marina. Sandy Gore, who portrays the widowed Maria, recalls the consternation in early rehearsals over figuring out whether she should be looking at Ascher or at Lengyel.

Adds Weaver: “It’s kind of an exhausting process.”

The cast members, dealing with the lingering effects of jet lag, file in to the Chinese Lounge in affable groups of three to talk about the play, and the growing overseas cachet these days of being an Australian actor. (Because of the crush of getting the play ready, Ascher could not make it for the conversations.)

As a result of the movie successes of a gallery of performers, many of them veritable brand names (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and on and on), the opportunities seem to be multiplying. Several of the “Vanya” actors remark on the changing fortunes for Australian drama school graduates, who now regularly fly out to L.A. with their diplomas. One of the actors recalls an American at a film audition, good-naturedly grumbling he’d have a better chance at a part if he affected an Australian accent.

“I think we’re just more confident now,” says Andrew Tighe, who plays a worker on the estate. Hayley McElhinney, the production’s dewy Sonya, says that watching the reception that some of her older colleagues have gotten in the United States and Europe is inspirational: “That really has had an impact on my work.”

At the moment, though, the actors are seeking to reconnect with one another. Their Australian run in “Vanya” ended at the beginning of 2011. They spent several recent days in Sydney together, reestablishing the emotional rhythms that are so crucial to understanding the ingrained lightness and anguish of a Chekhov household.

They all say they learned a lot from Ascher, even though they discovered it was sometimes easier to work out a minor issue on their own rather than to go through the tedium of having questions and answers translated back and forth. The hard part sometimes, says Weaving, who portrays Astrov and is a familiar face from the “Matrix” film franchise, was drawing out discussions of the subtleties of their roles, because “a lot of the characters’ impulses aren’t in the text.”

As for the text itself, Ascher’s approach took some of them by surprise: Intriguingly, he disavows any flowery, lyrical treatment of Chekhov’s language.

“We kept it as literal as possible,” Upton says of the translation. “Tamas pointed out that the sentences in ‘Vanya’ are really short. And often what the characters say to each other is quite cruel.”

To Roxburgh, Ascher’s directorial style was “kind of old school; he tells you the end result. But what he’s really talking about is the creation of an atmosphere.” Through his translator, too, he was willing to be as straightforward as he wanted the script to sound.

“We’re kind of mollycoddled by our directors — it’s very touchy-feely,” Roxburgh says of the Australian way, which draws knowing laughs from Weaver and Weaving. Ascher would have none of that. “He would just say, ‘Don’t do that. It looks silly.’ There was that to come to terms with. No matter who you are, he will tell you exactly what he’s feeling.”

The Australians are just beginning to find out how this internationally forged “Vanya” comes across to Americans. Funnily enough, their biggest collective worry seems to be how they themselves will sound: They wonder, a bit bleary-eyed, if a Washington crowd will accept a Russian estate where everyone speaks Australian?

Uncle Vanya

through Aug. 27 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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