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Cate Blanchett on Reviving Theater Classic ‘Uncle Vanya’ for Modern Stage

August 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Australian actors Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh have brought the Anton Chekhov classic "Uncle Vanya" back to the stage, playing now at Washington's Kennedy Center. Jeffrey Brown speaks with the actors about the challenges of staging the play for a modern audience and why so many Australians seem to be acting these days.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Australian film stars, a Russian playwright, and a return to an American stage.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Queen Elizabeth…

CATE BLANCHETT, actress: How have you failed me?

JEFFREY BROWN: … to, unlikely as it seems, Bob Dylan…

CATE BLANCHETT: You just want me to say what you want me to say.

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JEFFREY BROWN: … Cate Blanchett has engaged and surprised audiences in a variety of roles. She’s become one of the world’s most admired film stars and joined a group of fellow Australians, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and others, who these days light up the big screen.

CATE BLANCHETT: We are almost the same age.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blanchett has received five Oscar nominations, including for her role as a young teacher in the psychological thriller “Notes on a Scandal.”

CATE BLANCHETT: You put me in prison. I could get two years!

JEFFREY BROWN: And she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a star of the past, Katharine Hepburn, in “The Aviator.”

But Cate Blanchett came from the theater, and to the theater she’s returned in a big way. With her husband, Andrew Upton, a writer and director, she now heads The Sydney Theatre Company. Last year, they brought a production of “Streetcar Named Desire” to the U.S., with Blanchett in an acclaimed performance as Blanche DuBois.

Now they’re back at Washington’s Kennedy Center with another classic: Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” having tapped a renowned Chekhov interpreter, Tamas Ascher from Hungary, to direct and lured an all-star cast of Australian actors to join in, including Richard Roxburgh, who’s appeared in numerous films.

I talked with Blanchett and Roxburgh recently about their work in the theater and why they chose to do “Uncle Vanya,” given the famous difficulties of staging and performing Chekhov for a modern audience.

CATE BLANCHETT: When you think about doing Chekhov, you have to have actors. It’s all actor-based. And so it really arose out of a conversation with Richard, trying to lure him back on stage, because he’s one of the finest stage actors in the country.

(LAUGHTER)

CATE BLANCHETT: It’s true. No, I’m not your agent, but it’s true.

(LAUGHTER)

CATE BLANCHETT: And “Vanya” came up, amongst a whole lot of other…

RICHARD ROXBURGH, actor: Yes. Yes. Chekhov is kind of — Chekhov is really tricky to do. And I don’t think Australia’s had a particularly happy relationship with it over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the problem? What’s the difficulty?

RICHARD ROXBURGH: To my mind, a lot of the time, we have inherited a kind of Anglo tradition of doing it, in which the pauses are sort of terribly leaden.

And it starts to feel like Noel Coward without the jokes. To my mind, Chekhov is really funny. I mean, he’s full of humanity, but he’s also very funny. So, it was important that we find a world where that was going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can’t help but say, this isn’t like the big, sort of epic story that we’re used to in much of our entertainment world. It’s a country estate. They’re sitting around moaning and moaning a lot of the time, right?

CATE BLANCHETT: But it’s very — it’s very easy to make Chekhov very small. And it’s epic. It’s an epic…

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel it’s epic?

CATE BLANCHETT: Well, it’s — they are epic moments in people’s very small domestic lives. And I think that’s the balance, is opening up the time spent with those people.

Chekhov is tricky. He’s — as we say in Australia, he’s a bugger to perform. But it — I don’t know. Can I say that on American television?

JEFFREY BROWN: I think you can say that, yes.

CATE BLANCHETT: It means slightly — something slightly different in our culture.

But it’s very, very exposing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CATE BLANCHETT: And I found it very — the process of rehearsing it, it was a bit like doing a clowning workshop, not that we were trying to get up there and be funny, but in the way that you have got to get up there and risk being and doing nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You both have very active film careers.

Is there a difference in acting between the film and what you’re doing now in an “Uncle Vanya”?

RICHARD ROXBURGH: What you find working in film is that you can spend a day doing some really menial, terribly dull activity. He scratches his head and yawns and gets out of bed. He walks to the shower. He closes the door. That’s your — that is three-quarters of a day in film land.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD ROXBURGH: And, of course, that’s — I mean, that is slightly reductive. All put together, it can be fantastic.

But in terms of acting itself, there’s nothing for me is as wonderful and as — frankly, as nourishing as doing — as doing theater. Theater gives back to you, because you get to do it, the big thing, every night, the big thing, and all of it.

And that’s very good for your skills as well.

CATE BLANCHETT: One of the first things I did when I got out of drama school was, I was working opposite Geoffrey Rush in a production of “Oleanna,” which is a play that hit an audience. It was one of the most powerful (INAUDIBLE) experiences that I have ever had with an audience.

It was — and I thought, this is actually really important. It’s a socially important enterprise, putting on a play. And that doesn’t always happen, but that is what you’re always trying to do. And it is very immediate. And I think that that is the addictive thing, is that the audience will get as much as they put into it, but also you’re responsible for shaping their experience very, very tangibly. And that is a — it’s a very powerful experience to have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blanchett and her husband had lived in London for many years, with her concentrating on her film work, before their decision to return to Sydney to head the theater company in 2008.

I want to ask you about coming back to co-direct with your husband the theater company. Why? Why do that? Because, surely, you don’t need to do that, and, surely, there must be headaches that come with managing…

CATE BLANCHETT: Migraines. Migraines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Migraines. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD ROXBURGH: It’s easy, isn’t it?

CATE BLANCHETT: It’s simple. Well, we were — we were asked to apply. And it was the most left-of-field thing that’s ever been asked of us, really.

And we were — we were so shocked by the request to apply for the job, that it made us ask — we had the most fascinating discussion with each other that went — we were up all night talking about the potential and what could be done. And then we got frightened. And we thought, well, if we don’t apply, it will just be cowardice. And then we got the job.

RICHARD ROXBURGH: What’s been interesting since Cate and Andrew have taken over is that, to my mind, the company has really opened up to the fact that we live — Australia lives in the world.

And Australia, as beautiful as it is, can tend to be an extremely insular environment, and where we can — we can sort of be terribly protective of our borders. And so what has happened is that it feels that the company has opened up and it’s internationalized in a way, so that, for the first time really in — to my mind, people like Tamas Ascher can be invited in to — to come and direct something.

And it an acceptance of the fact that we are a global community. And there is no point in hiding from that anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you finally, because you have talked so much about Australia, what is it about Australia that has generated so many wonderful actors? So many of our biggest stars now are Australians.

RICHARD ROXBURGH: I think it’s just that most people in Australia now are actors.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD ROXBURGH: So it’s just a — it’s a numbers game.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD ROXBURGH: Most people are actors over there. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how it feels?

RICHARD ROXBURGH: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CATE BLANCHETT: But I think we’re quite adventurous as performers. And I don’t think we have a — we don’t have a — we’re not polite, I don’t think.

I don’t think we have a — for better or for worse, we don’t have a sense of boundaries or boxes that we should be in. And I think that is what makes I think people curious about Australian performers, is you’re not able to pigeonhole people as clearly. We somehow sit between or understand American culture and English culture, but we’re something other.

So I think it’s in that something other that provides that open space to become something unique.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, thanks for talking to us.

CATE BLANCHETT: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Uncle Vanya” continues at Washington’s Kennedy Center, its only U.S. venue, through Aug. 27.