We stride up a dusty track to The Cedars as the mercury nudges 40 degrees. We are welcomed, yes, warmly, offered refreshments, and invited to sit under the shade of giant pines until the show starts. It gives us a moment to reflect on this incredible 60-hectare heritage property in Hahndorf – the Heysen family home – that is arguably Australia’s most underrated tourist attraction. This is where we will meet Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Uncle Vanya. Photo supplied
The Cedars, we are to learn, attracts celebrity – Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marcel Marceau, Anna Pavlova and Dame Nellie Melba all came to pass some time in the company of their friend, Sir Hans Heysen. During the four acts of Uncle Vanya over two days, there are nearly as many famous faces in the small audience as vodka shots consumed in the entire play. Word seems to have spread early and widely – this English language Uncle Vanya is unlike any other.
Uncle Vanya is a play about claustrophobia, so when Act I commences with afternoon tea at the bottom of the vast garden and it quickly becomes obvious that the extraordinary mise-en-scène sweeps as far as the eye can see – from the entrance to the property way down the hill and up to the rear of the two-storey Heysen villa – we are a little concerned.
Initially the pace is slow and the style very particular. The rhythm of speech seems out of place, until we realise that it’s how people who don’t have lines in a play, speak to each other. This adaptation by producer and director Bagryana Popov is challenging at first – it feels under-rehearsed – particularly because she keeps popping into scenes, adding, directing, and asking questions of characters so they repeat their lines. It quickly becomes part of the experience, which is fortunate because it is her very unique style, consistent throughout. It has a strange effect. We start to relax, like we are visitors at a tea party in a beautiful setting. As the scene progresses, we start to wonder if ennui is contagious and if we should ask Dr. Astrov.
Uncle Vanya. Photo supplied
As the first act concludes, we are invited to walk up to the house and speak with the characters until the bell rings. This is the time to check their back-story should we be so inclined, but, new to the routine, the beguiling house and artwork leaves us speechless.
There is no need to wonder how to fill the time between acts; intermissions have no currency here. Instead, the correlation between Heysen’s conservation efforts and those in the play are highlighted. Such offerings include educational and historical talks that add hugely to the experience. Welcome to Country comes from Peramangk/Kaurna elder Ivan Copley OAM, an open discussion with Sue Heysen (wife of Sir Hans’ son David) occurs in something akin to a moonlit fairy circle, an art and history walking tour by curator Allan Campbell (whose encyclopaedic knowledge of The Cedars and Heysen art could fill a two-day event all by itself) includes a tour of both Hans and Nora Heysen’s studios, and a splendid expedition led by Trees Please! expert Trevor Curnow, highlights twenty years of conservation projects which have regenerated huge sections of the estate. The hospitality of the La Mama team throughout is exceptional, particularly in the sweltering heat.
Chekhovian purists will likely find fault with this production, but as there is not a test at the end, this version with Australian vernacular – which transforms Astrov from a Zemstvo doctor into a medical bushfire volunteer and Vanya and Sonya into Aussie farmers – will ring true for those who’ve ever spent a weekend away with no digital devices and people who are getting on each other’s nerves. This is not a low-tech production – it’s virtually no-tech – the modern-day setting without devices essential to the adaptation. We let the characters help us make the leap into this world, now unfamiliar to most.
In a directive somewhat inverse to Chekhov’s gun principle, we do not even know there is a gun in the house, let alone see it during the dramatic climax. Later, Popov claims to not be able to abide the sight of guns. Now she’s just messing with us. We add it to the long list of things to contemplate arising from this event.
Uncle Vanya. Photo supplied
James Wardlaw as Uncle Vanya starts out with a goofy portrayal and soundly becomes more shambolic as his existential crisis and depression peaks. Todd MacDonald’s Dr. Astrov is excellent, particularly in the improvised drinking scene in Act II which is one of a number of laugh-out-loud funny moments so rarely seen in productiosn of Chekhov in recent years.
The daughter/step-mother team of Natascha Flowers/Olena Fedorova play well off each other; their light versus shade working well to underpin the relationships around which most of the characters float. John Bolton is a convincing Professor whose gravitas seems to have got everyone into the funk that tests their mettle.
The scenes in smaller and smaller rooms are cleverly meted and build the drama until the long silences start to become uncomfortable. It has the desired effect to prepare the stage for the most important three words of the play, which signal its close. This version provides little in the way of catharsis to ponder in the denouement. It is part of its perfectly imperfect charm.
Unrushed to the point of feeling time-warped, this Chekhov has been “slow cooked” and the result is mouth-watering. Uncle Vanya at The Cedars is a magical, intense and extraordinarily special experience.
Uncle Vanya plays until March 16, but the season is sold out.