Direc­tor Na­dia Tass is rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to stage Chekhov, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Un­cle Vanya

Na­dia Tass’s films are cen­tral to our sense that Aus­tralian cin­ema can do clas­sic things that are also ef­fort­lessly en­ter­tain­ing. Think of Mal­colm (1986), that ex­tra­or­di­nary com­edy with Colin Friels, an ec­cen­tric chap ob­sessed with gad­gets and trams who gets in­volved with a bunch of charm­ing crooks. Or The Big Steal (1990) with the young Ben Men­del­sohn want­ing to im­press Clau­dia Kar­van with the Jag he doesn’t pos­sess.

Both of them were writ­ten and shot by Tass’s hus­band David Parker, and all of her work — even that for­lorn story of the sick boy Match­ing Jack (2010) with Kodi Smit-McPhee — has that un­canny qual­ity of tak­ing a fa­mil­iar world (usu­ally Mel­bourne) and pre­sent­ing it as some­thing rich and strange with a com­po­si­tional qual­ity that is grand and beau­ti­ful but in no way di­min­ishes the at­ten­tion to the qual­ity of the ac­tion.

In re­cent years Tass has been di­rect­ing for the stage — an early love — as well. Her pro­duc­tion of Jane Ca­farella’s e-baby ends to­day at Syd­ney’s En­sem­ble Theatre, and she has just done both Han­nie Rayson’s Ex­tinc­tion and the Pulitzer prize-win­ning Dis­graced by Ayad Akhtar for the Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany.

Now she is go­ing to do one of the sum­mits of world theatre: Chekhov’s Un­cle Vanya in An­nie Baker’s trans­la­tion, with the for­mer head of Red Stitch, David White­ley, in the ti­tle role.

Tass is thrilled by the prospect of do­ing Chekhov. Ev­ery­thing about this woman of Greek Mace­do­nian back­ground be­comes both an­i­mated and grave at the thought of do­ing the Rus­sian mas­ter of the ev­ery­day, the supreme tragi­co­me­dian who made the bur­ble of con­ver­sa­tion among re­fined Rus­sians sound like dra­matic po­etry that could equal Shake­speare or the Greek drama­tists.

“He was so ahead of his time, Chekhov. He’ll have Astrov talk­ing about cli­mate change and talk­ing about forests. The char­ac­ter is right, he’s so elo­quent and yet he’s so flawed, but Chekhov never judges, he never preaches. He was so good at see­ing the world he lived in.”

She says he held up a mir­ror to his so­ci­ety with­out moral bias. And, of course, this is the clair­voy­ant qual­ity in Chekhov. He has such an in­ti­mate grasp of the id­iom of en­light­ened, at­trac­tive peo­ple and yet what stares at us in ev­ery per­for­mance of his doc­tor Astrov is the en­velop­ing sense of fail­ure, the fum­bling and flick­er­ing aware­ness of a moral des­tiny that can be ap­pre­hended but never re­alised.

So what does Tass see in this new ver­sion of Vanya — there are a hun­dred, all aim­ing to max­imise the mys­tery of Chekhov’s po­etic plain­ness — by Baker, a 35-year old Amer­i­can writer who can make some guys in a cafe, or some peo­ple who work in a cin­ema, seem as in­ti­mate and myr­iad-minded, as shapely and as torn as the fig­ures of heroic drama?

“An­nie Baker has val­i­dated it for to­day’s world in an idiomatic way in the cur­rent lan­guage of the theatre,” she says.

And it is this kind of mi­cro-shift that can make all the dif­fer­ence to a direc­tor and her ac- tors be­cause it re­leases some key to the mu­sic (and deeper than the mu­sic, the emo­tion) that lies be­hind Chekhov’s ap­par­ently hand-medown words. Tass ex­plains to me how the char­ac­ters in Un­cle Vanya are of­ten heard to char­ac­terise them­selves as “ec­centrics”.

“In An­nie Baker they say ‘we’re all creeps’, and the mean­ing, or shade of mean­ing is so dif­fer­ent. It can cre­ate an ef­fect for the au­di­ence which is very in­ti­mate.”

And it’s that in­ti­mate, in­stantly recog­nis­able nat­u­ral­ism that is part of Tass’s sig­na­ture: it’s the thing that makes her style all but in­vis­i­ble when she’s do­ing a big-time play such as one of Baker’s — and it’s also what makes her films such win­ners with au­di­ences.

Tass has al­ways had a sense of how the high­light­ing of a hack­neyed or cliched phrase — and an id­iom as fa­mil­iar as the lines on your hand — can sound like the mu­sic of the spheres when it’s dra­mat­i­cally or cin­e­mat­i­cally in­flected the right way. So how is she go­ing to or­ches­trate the voices in this strange dra­matic mas­ter­piece in which ev­ery­one seems to sing the aria of him­self? “I’m still work­ing on it,” she says. “I want to get a tinge — a very gen­tle tinge — of the Rus­sian rhythm. I’m not say­ing it needs to be recog­nis­able. Just a hint of it at the back of things.”

Nor should this be in­com­pat­i­ble with the fact that the play is in the dom­i­nant English-lan­guage id­iom of our time: Amer­i­can. Tass talks mus­ingly of the way a char­ac­ter can say the words “mother, mother” in a way that is dis­tinc­tive and deeply mov­ing. “An­nie Baker seems to re­ally pin­point nat­u­ral­ism in the same way Chekhov does,” she adds.

Part of the poignancy of Chekhov is that he is talk­ing about a world the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion swal­lowed up and spat out, a world it elim­i­nated as if it had never been, and yet it’s spir­i­tu­ally “a de­mo­graphic”, to use Tass’s phrase, which we in­stantly recog­nise as in­ti­mately our own.

Tass talks about the quiet­ness of Chekhov and the way when it’s a bit like a quiet film, the au­di­ence comes into the work. “When a movie is quiet,” she says, “the au­di­ence moves to­wards the screen. You edge to­wards it, you’re at­ten­tive. And this is what hap­pens too with good theatre.”

She loves the beauty of Chekhov, which can be so like the ran­dom tran­si­tory beauty of Vanya; Mal­colm; The Big Steal; Mal­colm ev­ery­day life, the plas­tic bag blow­ing in the wind. She loves the way the old fam­ily re­tainer Ma­rina, the nurse who makes tea and pets and looks af­ter peo­ple, has such a quiet au­thor­ity be­cause in Un­cle Vanya she’s the rock, the still point of the turn­ing world.

“All the other char­ac­ters”, she says, “are kick­ing and scream­ing. They are all com­ing to their cross­points and their crises, and she is sta­tion­ary.”

Tass talks as if Chekhov was al­ways the moun­tain she had to climb, the thing that dom­i­nated her land­scape. His power over her goes back to her child­hood, when she was read the great sto­ries such as The Lady with the Lapdog.

“It’s all over Mal­colm and The Big Steal.” She says it’s there too, with bells on, in Rikky and Pete (1988), the film that fol­lowed Mal­colm and got a rave re­view from The New York Times. She talks af­fec­tion­ately of that much-missed ac­tor John Har­g­reaves, who mes­merised men, women and beasts. “That guy, he was such a ge­nius,” she says al­most coo­ingly.

The con­ver­sa­tion shifts to what an Astrov Har­g­reaves would have made in Vanya, and how we don’t as a na­tion cot­ton on to the rich­ness of the tal­ent we have un­til it’s gone. “But I love Chekhov,” she adds, as if it can’t be em­pha­sised enough. I’m ab­so­lutely in­flu­enced by him in all my film work.”

She has a rev­er­ence for the way a play­wright can tinker over years and years in or­der to get a vi­sion right. “Think of Ayad Akhtar — he wins the Pulitzer prize for Dis­graced, and then he goes back to the text and re­vises.” She cites the way Chekhov’s early work such as The Wood De­mon could be some­thing he could ar­tic­u­late with all the power of a young drama­tist of ge­nius, but then he would go back to it, re­vise it and re­con­fig­ure it, and what would emerge would be a mas­ter­piece such as Un­cle Vanya.

You can tell with Tass that she’s in­tent on cap­tur­ing her dra­matic and filmic dreams and bend­ing the world to her vi­sion of them. She talks about the idea of dreams in her film, the idea of the might-have-beens and the fan­cies in Chekhov. And then the con­ver­sa­tion shifts, as Aus­tralian con­ver­sa­tions will, to Mel­bourne and Syd­ney as if we were talk­ing about Moscow and St Peters­burg. Then the con­ver­sa­tion shifts to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, which each of the big­ger cities speak about with a shared scorn.

“There was to be a screen­ing of Mal­colm in Can­berra be­cause it’s 30 years since the film came out,” she says, “and David [her hus­band] turned to me and said, ‘What if no­body comes?’ And that was quite con­ceiv­able. I said, ‘Well, it’s pos­si­ble.’ ” So Tass and Parker gin­gerly made their way to the cin­ema. But Mal­colm, the an­niver­sary re-run, got a full house.

And so it will be, one sus­pects, when the woman who has done so much for the ab­sur­di­ties and poignancy of Aus­tralian life presents her in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Baker’s ver­sion of Chekhov’s Un­cle Vanya.


is at Red Stitch in Mel­bourne from Tues­day un­til De­cem­ber 17.

Na­dia Tass at her pro­duc­tion stu­dio in Mel­bourne dur­ing rehearsals for Un­cle

Colin Friels, below left, in

Ben Men­del­sohn with Clau­dia Kar­van in

and the trick car used in a key scene in

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