Uncle Vanya – Subscriber Briefing Recap

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov – Sydney Theatre Company

Subscriber Briefing Recap – 25 October 2010, Wharf 2


  • Tamas Ascher (Director)
  • Anna Lengyel (Dramaturg – Translator)
  • Gyorgyi Swakacs (Costume Designer)
  • Andrew Upton (Adaptation By)
  • John Bell (Professor Serebryakov)
  • Cate Blanchett (Yelena, Serebryakov’s wife)
  • Sandy Gore (Maria, first wife of Serebryakov)
  • Hayley McElhinney (Sonya)
  • Anthony Phelan (Telegin)
  • Andrew Tighe (Workman)
  • Jacki Weaver (Marina, Nurse)
  • Hugo Weaving (Astrov, a doctor)


  • Richard Roxburgh (Vanya)

Andrew Upton starts proceedings by introducing actors and the roles they are playing. In doing so he amuses the audience by trying to explain all the connections between the characters. Richard Roxburgh was absent due to the birth of his child. Tamas does not speak English which makes the subscriber briefing quite amusing at times.

 On the experience and Chekhov:

Tamas Ascher (via Anna):

It has been fun in the rehearsal room. Not a technical problem, since I understand most of the lines in the English script. Plus the thoughts are on the actors’ faces so it helps in being able to read them. But simple stage directions have become lengthy translations, when the actor asks where exactly? Since Anna doesn’t remember the line, so a ten second query turns into two minutes.

Chekhov is exciting which can be interpreted in many different ways. It can range from a love story to a drama, questions about life which are asked or can be answered. It can be deemed as a tragic comedy (or dramedy) which becomes important in the characters and others.

On the casting (and rehearsals):

Tamas Ascher (via Anna):

The cast had been decided before the director became involved. Hugo, Richard, John and Cate had already been cast, the rest were cast by the director. Bergman once said every character has to be exactly cast regardless of the size of the role.

Cast and characters is spot on and rehearsals have been exciting for the director. For the cast it has been exciting and boring (joking). Since every moment of the show is either comical or heartbreaking.

On the characters:

John Bell:

Professor Serebryakov has written about anthropology all his life, but knows nothing about it. He stepped into the right circles, but is arrogant, insecure and at a loss of who he is. On top of this, having a young wife makes him increasing irrelevant.

Jacki Weaver:

The nurse is like a nanny and a servant. The role is small, but the character itself is the only sane one in the play.

Andrew Tighe:

Yeffen (?), a workman, small but brilliantly cast (laughter). He looks at the world outside so like the nurse is another normal role.

Sandy Gore:

Maria was married to Serebryakov, had two children, Vanya and Vera. Vera’s husband died, Sonya is her daughter, Maria’s granddaughter. Maria is still in love with Serebryakov even though he is now married to Yelena.

Hayley McElhinney:

Sonya lives in the country with the family which has an effect on her since she is in love with the doctor. Which isn’t that hard (looks at Hugo, laughter).

Hugo Weaving:

Astrov, a doctor, always working, never sleeping, he is something that is unattached with life but loves planting trees and drinking vodka. He has feelings for Yelena.

Cate Blanchett:

Yelena gave up her ambitions for an older husband who is boring. She has to also hear everyone go on about Serebryakov’s first wife Maria. Working opposite Hugo isn’t hard, since sparks / chemistry is there (at which point Cate apologises to Andrew Upton her husband – laughter). She also has a connection with Vanya.

Anthony Phelan:

Telegin, a gardener who longs for his unrequited love. The world does not stay balanced for him.

Richard Roxburgh (well Andrew Upton explaining his character Vanya):

Vanya is 47 years old that has woken up and realised that he is closer to the end of his life than the beginning of it. Between the epiphany and with his passion for Yelena gets him into knots.

On the adaptation:

Andrew Upton:

It consists of short, brutal, honest sentences and is very straight forward and direct. The aim is to be as literal as possible. Act Three was the act they worked most on. It is like throwing a stone into a pond. He concentrated on the stone, while the actors would be the pond. Alex Melham, from Melbourne helped with the adaptation.

On the costumes:

Gyorgyi Swakacs:

It is a wonderfully difficult job. There has to be sensitivity to help the characters through the costumes they are in. She was on the same wave length as the actors when it came to costumes and there will be relief at the moment she sees them on stage in the costumes. It is the first time doing Uncle Vanya, but has done costumes for other Chekhov productions.

Tamas Ascher (via Anna):

Costumes are closer to the current times than the period they are set in, since they would be deemed too beautiful if it was set when the play was written. Chekhov plays have a nostalgic beauty because of when they were built which can overwhelm the characters. That is why the costumes will be set closer to today (50-60 years) instead of when it was written (100 years).

On the set design:

Tamas Ascher (via Anna):

The estate, style and rooms do change. The characters are like monuments so they should act around the stage, set.

On bilingual rehearsals:

John Bell:

It was difficult at first, but easier now. You can pick up what Tamas is saying via his body language.

On discovering Chekhov:

Hugo Weaving:

It is an absolute beautiful play, joy to work with but difficult at the same time due to the illusive characters, which can be hard to pin down at times.

Hayley McElhinney:

It is obvious when you hit the wrong note, but the rehearsal room has been good.

John Bell:

Chekhov may not say what it means or mean what they say. It is kind of like real life.

On further research:

Hugo Weaving:

The letters that Chekhov wrote were very useful. He actually thinks they were his master works including letters of when he was writing a play. Chekhov was an incredible human being and mortality was something that was instilled in all his characters.

Jacki Weaver:

Read the letters when she did The Seagull with John (Bell). Chekhov had the concern that it would not be played funny.


Piece of Trivia:

Jacki Weaver and John Bell appeared in an early production of The Seagull for Nimrod (now known as Belvoir Street Theatre) while Cate and Richard appeared in the Belvoir Street Theatre’s production of The Seagull in 1995.



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