2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

Swings

“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

Gay

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

JosieLane

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

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The Present

Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage, then eventually it must be used. In his latest Chekhov adaptation, The Present, Andrew Upton wastes no time, starting the tragicomedy with a bang.

In fact, Upton has the characters pull the trigger several times before the play’s dramatic conclusion – just some of the fireworks, emotional and literal, that punctuate and power this blisteringly brilliant Sydney Theatre Company production.

Upton has adapted a number of classic Russian plays with considerable success – Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky’s Philistines and Children of the Sun, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard – but The Present is arguably his best yet.

Written around 1878, Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play – often called Platonov after its central character – would run around five hours in its original form but Upton has condensed it to a gripping three hours including interval.

He has updated the action from pre-revolutionary Russia to the mid-1990s, post-Perestroika, another period of great change and disillusionment. Instead of the main protagonists being 20-something as Chekhov had them, they are in their 40s, intensifying their feelings of yearning, regret and frustration.

The play is set in the country house of Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an older, powerful General, where a group of friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate her 40th birthday. Among them are local doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Anna’s stepson, the slightly nerdy, awkward Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his brittle new wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who has recently returned from working overseas.

Anna has also invited two powerful landowners (David Downer and Martin Jacobs) hoping one of them might marry her, securing her land and fortune.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

At the heart of the play is Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), who has not fulfilled his brilliant promise as a young intellectual and is now a womanising schoolteacher.

Mikhail brings his sweet but gauche wife (Susan Prior) and baby son. However, his roving eye soon alights on Sophia, a former flame, and Nikolai’s gorgeous girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) – though it’s clear his heart belongs to Anna.

Irish director John Crowley helms a superbly paced production on Alice Babidge’s impressive, almost-naturalistic set, which moves from a verandah outside the dacha to a small balloon-festooned summerhouse to a night scene in swirling mist, and back to the dacha for the morning after, this time inside. It’s brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper with a powerful sound design by Stefan Gregory who uses music by The Clash and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to punctuate scenes.

Together Upton, Crowley and the magnificent cast nail the Chekhovian balance between laughter and tears as the characters struggle to deal with life in the here-and-now.

The first of the four acts is a slow burn as the guests arrive. Tensions and animosities simmer beneath the desultory chat, with conversations cutting across each other, all of which is performed with a convincingly spontaneous feel. Then, in the aftermath of lunch, the play suddenly explodes into shattering life.

Roxburgh gives one of the performances of his career as Mikhail, capturing his wit and charisma but also his world-weary vulnerability and self-loathing. Blanchett is equally virtuosic as Anna, moving from bored containment to drunken abandon. Both draw on deep, uninhibited emotional reserves and the chemistry between them is electric.

But it’s a genuine ensemble piece with superb performances from the entire 13-strong cast (which also includes Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland and Andrew Buchanan). As Upton prepares to leave STC at the end of the year, The Present is a thrilling parting gift.

The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 19. It is sold out but $20 Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online at http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 16

Sydney Theatre Company brings Chekhov into The Present

A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Anna Bamford are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford and Chris Ryan are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

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.”

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

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.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC's Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC’s Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

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.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC's Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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