In a cut-out approximation of a summer cottage on a bare stage, the floor dotted with shoots of green gently suggesting grass, Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett) sits outside, smokes, and waits for her birthday party to begin.
This is Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present, Andrew Upton’s take on Anton Chekhov’s first play, an untitled and unwieldy epic that is most commonly referred to as Platonov.
Platonov is Mikhail Platonov (here Richard Roxburgh, effortlessly charismatic), a man who assures us he isn’t adrift while remaining steadfastly so; a great thinker who never really went somewhere with all that thinking. He’s deeply in love with Anna, but he loves or at least wants every woman he sees: Sergei’s (Chris Ryan) wife Sophia (Jacquieline Mackenzie), who he has been involved with in the past; Nikolai’s (Toby Schmitz) girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford); and yes, sometimes, his wife Sasha (Susan Prior), with whom he has a baby son.
Upton’s adaptation takes the spotlight from Platonov’s name and shares focus in the narrative quite evenly — this is Anna and Mikhail’s story. In the first act it’s really all Anna, the General’s widow who feels her own adrift state more keenly these days. She is turning 40, bored, and alone. Her cottage, where she has gathered her friends — Sergei (her late husband’s son) and his pals that she has come to adore — as well as a couple of potential suitors and their sons. She doesn’t really want to marry either of the potential husbands, but she does need to marry, for security, and for a place to fit.
Her merry party goes more than a little awry, and the second act takes the smoking wreckage of Anna’s recklessness and uses it as a setting to explore the emotional wreckage inside a drunk and yearning Mikhail. Will these two whip-smart, attractive, trapped individuals ever be happy?
Well, probably not.
On the blank, generous set by Alice Babidge, and wrapped in the music of The Clash and Joy Division, some of the world’s most visceral reactions to a restrictive universe, The Present asks us to consider how we take our lives into our own hands and make something of them — how can we get what we want, at least in some way, without completely falling out of our own lives?
Upton’s adaptations can be something of a double-edged sword. His narrative style is rich with contemporary frankness and colloquialisms, and he refuses to elevate his language into anything resembling refined, elitist self-expression or conversation. The extreme modern accessibility in his language creates an easy dialogic rhythm that’s predisposed to humour; but it also means that sometimes it’s difficult to separate cringe comedy from heart-wrenching pathos; sometimes there’s a real dissonance between the buoyancy of his characters’ speech and the emotional turmoil they’re experiencing beneath.
Some of this problem may be in the execution of a couple of key scenes in the first act, when the humour could fade into something more sharp and dangerous — this production never quite builds to the level it needs to invoke a real sense of tragedy around the ending. The humour and banter feels a little self-indulgent at times, though one has to wonder how much of this hyped comic energy came from the opening night audience; the oversized responses to the simplest of lines in from such a welcoming audience may well have thrown out the careful balance contained in director John Crowley’s tragicomic production.
But his cast is all deft and intelligent when it comes to comedy and the crucial element of comic timing to land the most rewarding repartee. Roxburgh and Schmitz excel in casual insults, particularly, and Ryan captures a very Australian self-deprecating sad-sack vibe that’s immensely appealing, even in The Present‘s world of 1990s Russia. Susan Prior’s sweet, well-meaning awkwardness as Sasha was played for laughs but behind them, clearly, remained the warmest of intentions. Eamon Farren’s crass DJ Krill demanded laughs and received them easily; the entire cast, this large and unreasonably talented ensemble, chartered the rise and fall from laughter to anger to tears very well.
And then there was Roxburgh and Blanchett, sharing a single chair on a bare stage, wondering if there was ever going to be a golden time for them again, these tough, aloof ones who had learned to move above feelings rather than within them, and they captured perfectly between themselves the question at the heart of Upton’s script, a true Chekhovian question: how do we live in the present knowing what we’ve learned from the past, and realistically understanding that the future isn’t full of endless possibilities after all?