A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov
Cate Blanchett is widely regarded as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. We’ve been incredibly lucky to see her give unforgettable performances in a number of Sydney Theatre Company productions over the last few years including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maids, Gross und Klein and Uncle Vanya.
But with the family relocating to the US when her husband Andrew Upton’s contract as artistic director of STC concludes at the end of this year (after eight years, five of them shared with Blanchett), the chances are we could be about to see her on a Sydney stage for the last time in a while.
Blanchett co-stars with Richard Roxburgh in The Present, adapted by Upton from Anton Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov. Directed by John Crowley, the production plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from August 4. The season is all but sold out but a final limited release of tickets will go on sale on Thursday July 9.
Blanchett and Roxburgh wowed audiences and critics alike when they performed together in Upton’s 2010 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Sydney, Washington and New York. As you’d expect, their reunion has made The Present one of the hottest tickets in the STC’s 2015 season.
The rest of the 13-strong ensemble is pretty extraordinary too, among them Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Anna Bamford, Chris Ryan and Susan Prior who recently won an AACTA Award for The Rover.
“It’s a great bunch,” says Blanchett.
“It is an incredible cast. Looking around the table and listening to the voices when we were doing our first read-through, it was just absolutely stunning,” says McKenzie.
“But if you had seen (Blanchett and Roxburgh in) Uncle Vanya and their amazing chemistry and work together, as an actor you want to be a part of that. So that’s really how you can collect such an amazing group of people because we all want to be in amongst it. It’s Andrew’s writing too. He’s an extraordinary adaptor,” adds McKenzie who performed in Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for STC in 2014.
“So you’ve got Chekhov, you’ve got Upton, you’ve got the Rox and you’ve got the Blanchett – and then you’ll get anyone.”
Chekhov’s first play – commonly known as Platonov after its central character – was an unstructured epic, which would have run for more than five hours if staged in its original state. The manuscript was discovered and published 16 years after his death. There have been various adaptations over the years including Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey.
“You couldn’t do it (as written). It was a mad thing. That’s why it ended up in a Chekhovian sock drawer and he never pulled it out again,” says Roxburgh.
“The play was a broken thing, a play without a name,” says Blanchett. “Andrew has taken the fragments as a starting point, really, the characters and the basic situations.
“We’ve got this box set of rather crusty old sepia Chekhovs done by the BBC in the 70s. It’s quite useful to see just the bare bones of the storytelling. It’s very, very English (depicting) Russians as eccentrics but I went back and looked at Platonov the other night and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly the women don’t make any sense. What Andrew has done is really teased out not only the relationships but the states of being that all the various women represent in the piece.”
Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov, once considered a great intellectual but now a disillusioned, wittily acerbic provincial schoolteacher, though still something of a Lothario. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, the widow of a much older General who she married in her 20s, and McKenzie plays Sophia, a former flame of Platonov’s who is now married to Anna Petrovna’s stepson.
Set in a country summerhouse where a group of old friends gather for Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party, the play is awash with yearning, shattered dreams and vodka.
Blanchett says that they are still discussing whether Anna Petrovna is also a former flame of Platonov’s.
“There is a sense that they are soulmates. Anna Petrovna is not at the centre of it but she’s the catalyst for the collision of desire and longing that happens around her 40th birthday.”
Upton has a fascination with late 19th century and early 20th century Russian drama and has adapted several plays of the era: Gorky’s Philistines and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard for London’s National Theatre, along with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, Gorky’s Children of the Sun and a revised version of The White Guard for STC.
His acclaimed adaptations are sparklingly colloquial, muscular and very funny but underpinned with melancholy, and speak very clearly to us today.
Upton has updated Platonov to the mid-1990s, to Russia post-Perestroika, and has the characters in their 40s rather than their 20s as in the original.
“What I like about the updating – Andrew’s updated it to 1995 I think we’ve settled on – is that when Chekhov was writing there was the sense of Russia in transition but it was quite a dangerous time politically and morally. Setting it in the mid 1990s, Russia is once again in that similar state of transition. With the wisdom of hindsight you see that there was a real chance for change,” says Blanchett.
“What is beautiful about it is that it really mirrors the state the characters are in. There’s still that opportunity to change. When you’re in your 40s, as we know, life’s not over.”
“It becomes so much more make and break than in your 20s when you’ve got the whole world laid out in front of you,” says McKenzie.
“It has that depth of meaning when someone is approaching the middle of their life,” agrees Blanchett. “Had the characters been in their 20s, there’s a self-centredeness to it whereas there’s a desperate futility and sadness about it. Suddenly the play has a purpose and an energy and an ache inside it.”
“It has a much darker depth to it, doesn’t it? It’s really fabulous,” says Roxburgh.
Upton’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the 1950s and directed by Tamas Ascher, got the tightrope balance between laughter and tears just right. The highly physical production verged on slapstick at times with pratfalls, pillow fights and drunken dancing. Blanchett’s elegant Yelena cooled her sudden ardour by standing in front of an open fridge. Hugo Weaving’s Astrov did a boisterous, drunken jig then fell backwards through a window. But for all the laughter you never lost sight of their misery.
The Present has “a different spirit”, says Roxburgh. “I think the fact that it has a contemporary setting gives it a different quality. What is I would say is that what is incredibly manifest is this energy in the storytelling. There’s a fantastic energy to it that gets pushed and pushed.
“It’s people in extremis. Things unfold that push people to their various breaking points and that can be terrible and hilariously funny, so it does explore all those things. But it’s by no means slapstick. It feels very real. It is people in extremis. To my mind that’s the definition of great theatre.
“But it is hilariously funny. I was rolling about laughing when I read it, which is not what you expect when you read an adaptation of Chekhov. But it’s never silly. It really feels like Chekhov, but not as you’ve ever got him.”
“The dialogue is fantastic,” says McKenzie. “It’s very witty, very fast. It’s like throwing little darts across the room. I’m laughing on stage. I have to stop.”
“John Crowley has a terrific way of putting it, which is that it seems like all of the scenes are not the scenes you’re supposed to be seeing,” says Roxburgh. “They are the grabbed moments in between. There’s a dinner, there’s a lunch, but you don’t see those, you see everything around that, the accidental moments or the catastrophic conclusion of the lunch. It’s a kind of string of all these broken, wrong moments.”
“Those points of genuine contact are like a life raft,” says Blanchett. “They happen occasionally when people do connect in the play. I was reading one of Chekhov’s short stories the other night, I think it was The House with the Mezzanine. It’s a brilliant story and it was describing a painter who was having a conversation with someone he was lodging with and he said that this lodger had the student’s predilection for turning a conversation into an argument. And that’s why this feels like a young play. Conversations very quickly turn into argument, sometimes fierce and sometimes frivolous. But there’s that cut-and-thrust in the play. My character is constantly saying: ‘can everyone just stop being mean!’”
“The crafting of the writing is very finessed,” says Roxburgh. “There’s a lot of overlap in it, which I reckon had Chekhov lived into these times he would have used because his sense of rhythm was so beautiful. It obviously wasn’t a thing of the time but the overlapping dialogue just creates this constant feeling of the shadow play of life. It feels just like we are with one another.”
The three actors speak very highly of Crowley, who has directed in London and on Broadway. McKenzie says that during the first week he got them all to research different aspects of Russian culture and politics from Russian oligarchs to Perestroika.
“I got post-Soviet country houses, where this is set. But it was fantastic because we all came together and shared our findings. It was so great because normally you all do your research yourself. I’ve got a six-year old now and my situation isn’t as free to sit in a library for hours obsessing, which is what I used to do.”
Working with Crowley “is about discovery”, says McKenzie. “What happens with actors a lot of the time is that things happen osmotically. He allows that to happen at the different paces that people work at. It’s just very generous. I tell you, I trust him. I really do. I don’t feel any agenda other than to find the best play.”
“And he seems to have great taste as well,” says Roxburgh “I saw his production of The Pillowman in London. It was a beautiful, very classy piece of work.”
Blanchett and Upton met Crowley when they were living in London. “We’ve been talking about working together for a long time. We’ve been trying to lure him here but dates and situations didn’t work so it’s great that it has now,” says Blanchett.
Asked if it’s hard to return to a rehearsal room when you have a young baby, Blanchett responds with an emphatic “yes!”.
She and Upton adopted baby Edith from the US earlier this year and have said that they and their three sons are “besotted”.
“I feel a bit sleep deprived,” she admits. “But you have to work with whatever state you’re in and turn it into a positive. Sometimes it can be good to be a bit tired in a rehearsal room because your defences are down, your guard is down.”
“You seemed to be working very well this morning in your mad aria!” chuckles Roxburgh.
“But Chekhov is excruciating (to rehearse),” rejoins Blanchett. “The couple of times I’ve had the fortune to work on Chekhov it’s really difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s why it was so wonderful touring Vanya because by the time we got to New York and we’d done three seasons of it, it had gone to another level. When you work on great writing – and what Andrew has written is really great – it’s difficult to get there but the longer you live with it, the richer it becomes, the more it feeds you and the more the company can bring to it.”
“I’m not finding it excruciating,” says Roxburgh cheerily. “I’m having great fun.”
The Present plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre), August 4 – September 19. A final limited release of tickets will go on sale to the public at 9am on Thursday July 9. Bookings can be made at www.sydneytheatre.com.au, by phoning 02 9250 1777 or in person at the Wharf box office.
STC also has its Suncorp Twenties program, which makes a limited number of $20 tickets available to each production, even if a season is otherwise sold out. Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online, in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.
A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 5