Cate Blanchett Lights Up Lincoln Center
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Artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, actress Cate Blanchett and her husband, playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton. Photographed at the Sydney Theatre
NR: Tamás brings something out in Chekhov that few directors do. Certainly that was the reaction we heard from the audience and the critics when we had Ivanov here in 2009; I think that was the reaction to your production of Uncle Vanya [in Washington, DC], that it was not only a stellar cast and wonderfully performed, but that it had a kind of rawness and a vision and a poignancy and a humor that Uncle Vanya doesn’t always have.
CB: I think it’s what Andrew was referring to before—that often in the way these plays are tackled and appropriated into the English-speaking theatrical culture, there is a sentimental relationship to the text and the situation, a languidness in the performance, something somehow reverential. These characters are madly eccentric. In fact, I think the absurd times which Tamás found himself living through in Hungary in his lifetime have given him a very unique perspective on what is real and what’s not real, and therefore his sense of humor has an incredible heart to it, but it also can go to quite extreme places.
NR: That sort of absurdist quality, which I didn’t associate with Chekhov, definitely comes out.
AU: Because I am in and out of the rehearsal room, I started to have this fantasy of Hugo [Weaving] and Richard [Roxburgh] playing [Waiting for Godot’s] Vladimir and Estragon because there was something about the way Tamás, particularly in the fourth act, was creating this atmosphere between Vanya and Astrov that really reminded me of a Beckett-ian situation. At the same time, Tamás was saying to both of them that one day they should play Vladimir and Estragon together because they would be perfect in those roles. We put those twos and twos together, and we are in talks to invite Tamás back next year to direct both Hugo and Richard as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, which I think will be a really beautiful culmination of the relationship that those three have formed artistically.
CB: The wonderful thing about Hugo and Richard—and this often doesn’t happen in Uncle Vanya—is that Richard is an actor who has played Hamlet. He is a hero, a leading man, and often Vanya is cast as a misanthropic, no-hope kind of figure. To have two heroes, men who could have walked the same path but made slightly different choices and somehow ended up in the same place, is fascinating. Initially when speaking to them about Vanya, we discovered that they had been talking years ago about playing it and swapping roles each night because, really, even though I think Richard is perfect casting as Vanya, there is a sense that he could also play Astrov. That is something that Tamás really worked with in the way he built the relationship between the two men.
NR: Do you both choose the repertory for the company?
AU: Yes. Actually it is interesting, the evolution of Uncle Vanya. We were very keen to find a good Chekhov to do—there isn’t a bad Chekhov to do— and then we were talking to both Hugo and Richard. They both expressed interest in the play as well. Once you decide to do a Chekhov, it really becomes a question of which one [you prefer] rather than which one is better than another. And the choice was about the cast in the end, and we just found ourselves with a dream cast for this beautiful play.
NR: But you’ve decided to step down in a year or so from the artistic directorship?
AU: It is the end of our time. We are in the second year of our second contract. It feels as if in Sydney, and Australia in general, there is a lot of vitality and change going on in the performing arts, certainly in theater. It just feels about the right time to finish, really; it’s definitely right for us. It’s been not great for me as a writer, and that’s just to do with the size of the job. And it’s tied Cate to the company. I just think it is the right time to go; we have done our time.
Lincoln Center Festival runs July 5 through August 5; the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya will be performed July 19 through 28 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.
photography by Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photo (upton); David Gubert/Chilli Media (blanchett)