Interview with Hayley McElhinney from Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”

The Sydney Theatre Company, Cate Blanchett’s artistic baby, returns to Washington this week with a play that stays true to its Russian roots

By: Sophie Gilbert

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett star in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya. Photograph of Uncle Vanya by Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and her artistic baby, the Sydney Theatre Company, return to Washington this week with Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The production is a new adaptation of the play by Blanchett’s husband, playwright Andrew Upton, and has been getting rave reviews in Australia, where it ran last winter. This is the show’s only US engagement, unlike STC’s 2009 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which transferred to Broadway a run in New York after the show’s Helen Hayes Award-winning Kennedy Center run. We spoke with cast member Hayley McElhinney, who plays Sonya, about her experiences with Russian drama, Hungarian directors, and working with Australian Oscar-winners.

What have your experiences been like with Uncle Vanya so far?
It’s an amazing play, and Andrew has done a wonderful adaptation, and stayed true to the Russian—he hasn’t embellished it at all. The director [Tamás Ascher] is a joy to work with, because he really relies on the actors, their impulses, and what they can draw from their own personal experiences. He doesn’t impose anything on you, which is such a relief, but also initially terrifying because you’re left to your own devices, and you’ve got this incredible play and are working with the best actors in the country, if not the world. At the beginning I was really scared, but it’s been a very empowering experience, and I think I’m a better actor today because of it.

What was the rehearsal process like?
It was unlike any other experience I’ve had, because the director has very limited English, so the whole experience was through a translator. His translator’s someone he’s very close to and has worked with a lot, so she not only translated what he was saying but interpreted it as well. I thought initially it would make things difficult, but it became quite natural—in a way, you’re having a conversation with two people. It made you quite choosy with what questions you wanted to ask though because the process would take a while.

What was your process in getting to the heart of Sonya?
The process was really surrendering myself, and not getting in the way of the work. The character is a very open-hearted, kind girl, but she’s also quite troubled because she’s in love with a character who isn’t in love with her. She’s confronted by her stepmother, played by Cate Blanchett, who is everything that she isn’t—she’s a woman who lives in the city, who’s very beautiful and elegant, and she doesn’t do any work, while Sonya looks after the family estate. So I thought about what happens when someone comes up and reflects everything that you’re not, and all the feelings that that provokes. It was interesting, because I could relate to the character, but in a way I didn’t want to admit. The director asks you to just be present, and very much in the moment, and see what happens, so you discover how you react to the other characters.

What are the challenges of doing Chekhov?
One is that his characters are so true to life. And another is that you have to remind yourself constantly that what the characters are saying isn’t necessarily what they mean. You’ve got to be vigilant and work hard, otherwise the language can seem superficial. And you’ve got to always go deeper to communicate what the characters are really thinking.

Uncle Vanya is at the Kennedy Center August 4 through 27. Get tickets ($59 to $120) by calling 202-467-4600.

A version of this article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

*This article originally said the show ran on Broadway, but the production ran in a non-Broadway theater in New York. We apologize for any confusion.

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