Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Present by Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov

The Present by Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov’s Platanov.  Sydney Theatre Company, directed by John Crowley.  Designed by Alice Babidge; lighting by Nick Schlieper; composer and sound design by Stefan Gregory.  At Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, August 8 - September 19, 2015

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 12

The lengthy history of what appears to have been Chekhov’s first play, an extraordinary lengthy 300 pages which it seems he began drafting at the age of 18, is partly explained in Upton’s Message from the Artistic Director and fully developed in a five page essay in the Program.

However you really don’t need to read all this to appreciate a highly theatrical script and production, supported of course by top quality acting and direction.  The key roles of Anna and Mikhail are played by Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh – and you get what you expect – but all of the other eleven actors never let the quality drop below the leads’ example.

So I won’t even begin to buy into the inevitable argument about whether we are watching Chekhov or Upton.  If Chekhov really did write this story of 40-year-olds riding the wild emotional surf of their second wave of sexuality, when he was still a teenager, he showed remarkable prescience if not precociousness.     This play is not Uncle Vanya or The Seagull  but the markers of their genetic history show up plainly here.

Perhaps to escape comparison, rather than setting The Present in its original period in the late 19th Century, Upton saw a parallel time in Russian history which also relates closely to what is still happening there and even here.  Australia and kangaroos get a token one liner.  Stalin died in 1953 and the reminiscences, interminable under the influence of being Russians constantly drinking vodka, make it clear that our present is 20 years later.  Glasnost is in, but characters who succeeded under Stalin still rule the roost.  They are the 60+ year-olds.

Even the environmental issues which showed up in Uncle Vanya poke their noses into concerns about profit-making in the new Russia from mines and gas fields.  Despite causing a small ripple of recognition as we think of NSW and Queensland, such concerns are entirely peripheral to what is largely a satirical comedy with surprising (and highly effective) explosions. 

Mikhail, obsessive womaniser, presages his death as the only solution to the impossible complexity of love and relationships.  However skilled Roxburgh is, though, it was difficult not to see his demise as not too dissimilar from that of Pyramus, though his several Thisbes surround him, or have left him, in anger or tears.

Watch especially for the four terrific set designs, and for the technique used in the transitions.  The opening set for Act 2 was especially evocative.  Mikhail himself wonders if he is seeing apparitions, in a set that had already made me wonder the same thing.

So, while the characters philosophise in the most annoying (and often very funny) ways, let’s not bother to do all that thinking.  Just let the theatricality of the moment become your present belief, and you’ll find yourself remembering those 40th Birthday parties in all their extremities of attraction and rejection (though you might wonder what you should be looking forward to, if you are still 18). 

There seems to be a theory behind the play – presumably in Chekhov’s imagination – that there is a sexual cycle which reaches some kind of pinnacle of excess every 20 years.  See The Present for a lifetime experience, and see what you think.

Nikolai and Anna
Toby Schmitz, Cate Blanchett

Nikolai, Mikhail, Sergei
Toby Schmitz, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan

40th Birthday Party

My death is the only solution
Richard Roxburgh (Mikhail), Cate Blanchett (Anna)

Sergei and Sophia
Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie
 Complete Cast:
Anna Bamford - Maria                        Jacqueline McKenzie - Sophia
Cate Blanchett - Anna                         Marshall Napier - Ivan
Andrew Buchanan - Osip                    Susan Prior - Sasha
David Downer - Yegor                         Richard Roxburgh - Mikhail
Eamon Farren - Kirill                          Chris Ryan - Sergei
Martin Jacobs - Alexei                        Toby Schmitz - Nikolai
Brandon McClelland - Dimitri