Love will tear us apart, again: STC’s The Present

This review appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

Chekhov’s reputation as a writer rests upon the legacy of his four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) and his short stories. Generally dismissed as juvenilia or the work of an amateur writer, his earlier plays – and particularly the play we generally call Platonov – should not be so easily dismissed. While sources and critics disagree as to its exact creation, the consensus is it was written when he was just eighteen, and finished a few years later as a student in Moscow, and was originally intended for a notable actress, in the hope she would stage it for her benefit performance. Sources cannot agree on what happened next, but a (the?) manuscript was discovered in 1914 (or 1920, depending on who you believe), and it has only been since the 1950s that the play has found a wider popular and critical audience, and it has been restored to its rightful place in Chekhov’s oeuvre.
At between four and six hours if uncut, Platonov is a sprawling and roughly structured piece of writing, though that is not to belittle its achievement which is truly staggering. In Andrew Upton’s new version for Sydney Theatre Company, simply called The Present, the time-frame of Chekhov’s sometimes-unwieldy play is condensed down to a mere twenty-four hours, instead of the usual several weeks. Set on a country estate, the play follows a group of old friends who have come together to celebrate the birthday of Anna Petrovna, a widowed landowner. But as the days pass, old friendships crumble, old relationships are reignited, and passions run fast and deep, until its devastating conclusion (thanks to Chekhov’s gun).
Stella Adler wrote that Chekhov’s plays were “about the constant heartbreak of daily life. He understood something about daily life – the constant disappointment of wasted talent and stifled ambition, of not achieving what you want to. That to [him] was the heartbreak.” Upton captures this beautifully in his version: these are people who believed they could make the world – their world – a better place, but instead they’ve been caught out by the system, as bureaucrats became oligarchs, as dreams fade and heroes become humans. Updated by Upton and director John Crowley to mid-1990s post-perestroika Russia, Upton’s sharp and angular version shimmers and crackles in the mouths of the thirteen-strong cast, and makes Chekhov’s one-hundred-and-thirty-odd year old play feel enormously fresh, contemporary, and new, as it ricochets around and transcends the confines of the Roslyn Packer theatre.
Alice Babidge’s set – inspired by the work of Belgian artist Gert Robijns – creates a slightly austere world for Chekhov-via-Upton’s characters to inhabit. While we are, for all intents and purposes, looking at the outside of a ‘real’ house or inside a ‘real’ house, there is something theatrical or un-real about these locations; what this does, is foregrounds the characters and their interactions with each other, something Chekhov does almost instinctively, even at such an early age. This is complemented by Nick Schlieper’s lighting which evokes rich afternoon light, moonlight, fireworks, rain, and the interiors of the house with precision and a little bit of magic. Babidge’s costumes also help to ground the play in its new setting, but they still convey a sense of Chekhov’s timelessness and universality.
The thirteen-strong cast here are all impressive, even if they are only in a few scenes; as the old adage goes, ‘there are no small parts, only small actors.’ Led by Richard Roxburgh as Mikhail (Platonov) and Cate Blanchett as Anna, the production shows just how interlinked this whole group of people are, how much they all depend upon each other for survival and well-being, and this is one (among many) of this production’s great strengths. Roxburgh’s usual almost-neurotic stage-presence is here toned down, and he has a number of quite poignant moments, more often than not with Blanchett’s Anna. Rather than an overbearing and self-centred character as he could very easily be, Roxburgh plays up the tragicomedy in the role, and comes to stand for every single one of the others, whether they know it or not, with their dashed dreams and shattered hopes. Blanchett’s Anna is a force to behold, blowing her way across the stage like a whirlwind, equal parts passion, compassion, tenderness, and untapped conviction; there are many beautiful moments to her performance, not least the end of Acts Two and Four.
Jacqueline McKenzie’s Sophia is full of ideas and determination, but also wants to correct her past mistakes, and won’t suffer anyone who stands in her way. Susan Prior’s Sasha is full of energy, but we soon see this is a mask for the unsatisfaction and restlessness in her life with Mikhail. Anna Bamford’s Maria is the idealist, full of youthful ideas and determination, but there’s also a touching sense of desperation to her, of wanting to grab life by the horns before it is too late. Toby Schmitz’ Nikolai is full of a fiery indignation but soon gives way to a weariness and resignation. Chris Ryan’s Sergei is full of dreams of the life that lies ahead of him and Sophia, but when the carpet is pulled out from him, he crumples but manages to put on a brave face and continue stoically. Eamon Farren’s sweatshirt-wearing Kiril is a burst of energy into the proceedings of Act Two, a wake-up bolt of passion and desire which does not go unheeded by those present. Brandon McClelland’s Dimitri is earnest and wise beyond his young years; Andrew Buchanan’s Osip is all brute-strength and professional efficiency; Martin Jacobs’ Alexei is perhaps stuck in the ‘good old days,’ but finds a new life in his son Kiril’s energy and optimism; and David Downer’s Yegor is aloof, business-minded, preferring not to get involved in the shenanigans of the rest of the group. It’s a heady cocktail of ideologies, ideas, and dreams, but as in all Chekhov’s work, none of them are vilified or seen to better or more deserving than another, and it is refreshing to see a cast of this size play with such gusto and life in a play like this.
In a very Chekhovian way, Upton’s new version – while structurally tighter and more cohesive than Chekhov’s original – necessarily meanders and wanders through a range of ideas, from business and the ‘new’ economic structure of Russia, to home-video, film, escapism, marriage, the future which hovers just out of reach for all of them, explosives, the security industry, and above all else, love, desire, and attraction. And although I would prefer to call it an adaptation of Chekhov, it feels very much like a new play – a gloriously alive and contemporary new play which is about us – here; now, today – as much as it is about Russia in the mid-1990s and Chekhov’s Russia in the late-1890s.
There is so much to like in this production – not just in the scale of the undertaking, but in the honesty of playing, the joy and pathos that pervades every performance and life on stage. The knife-edge which Chekhov walked in all his writing is amplified here through these characters’ foibles and follies, and it makes for fascinating and life-affirming viewing. And although Chekhov “tears people apart, rends them from limb to limb,” as Upton writes, he still finds them bursting with life, wanting, needing, feeling; incandescent. Human.
And it is beautiful.

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