TO VANYA, WITH LOVE
Director Nadia Tass is relishing the opportunity to stage Chekhov, writes Peter Craven
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.
HE WAS SO AHEAD OF HIS TIME, CHEKHOV NADIA TASS
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