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

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All My Sons

Eternity Playhouse, November 5

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has christened the new Eternity Playhouse with Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, the gut-wrenching All My Sons from 1947 – and both the venue and the production have come up trumps.

The sensitive conversion of the newly restored Baptist Tabernacle, a 126-year old, heritage-listed building in Burton Street, Darlinghurst features a spacious timber foyer and a beautifully appointed 200-seat theatre with excellent sight lines and acoustics. It all feels fresh and welcoming, while original features such as the ornate ceiling and stained glass windows add to the venue’s charm.

Miller’s tightly plotted play resonates powerfully in the intimate space. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Joe Keller (Marshall Napier) and his wife Kate (Toni Scanlan) are living a life of suffocating denial.

Convicted for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft engine parts from his factory, which caused the death of 21 pilots during the war, Joe was subsequently exonerated leaving his business partner Steve to take the rap. Kate, meanwhile, clings to hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot, is still alive despite having been missing for three years.

A sense of tragedy hangs over the play from the beginning, as Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Andrew Henry) invites Larry’s former sweetheart Anne (Meredith Penman) to stay, hoping to marry her. Anne, who grew up next door, is Steve’s daughter.

When Anne’s brother George (Anthony Gooley) arrives, having just visited their father in jail, dark secrets are revealed leaving no possibility of a happy outcome for any of them.

Unlike many of the auteur, re-imagined productions of classics that we have seen in Sydney of late, Iain Sinclair directs a traditional production set in the period and using American accents, but it is fluent, well paced and beautifully performed, unfolding with the inexorable undertow of Greek tragedy.

Scanlan breaks your heart as the desperate, deluded, at times feverish Kate who dares not admit the possibility that her son is dead, while Napier convincingly conveys the gruff bonhomie covering a dark, gnawing secret.

Henry excels as the open-hearted Chris who longs to step out of Larry’s blighted shadow and live his own life, while Gooley ramps up the energy with a bristling anger as George.

On opening night, Penman brought a sparkling warmth to the role of Anne, but due to a major television opportunity has since been replaced by Anna Houston.

In the supporting roles, Sinclair (who plays a doctor as well as directing), Mary Rachel Brown, Briallen Clarke and Robin Goldworthy all acquit themselves admirably.

Luke Ede’s set works well enough and is subtly lit by Nicholas Rayment. Occasionally Nate Edmondson’s music feels a little too overtly manipulative emotionally as in a film score, particularly in the climactic scenes when it is distracting and unnecessary, but that’s a minor quibble.

Performed with an intense honesty, Miller’s timeless story about the link between commerce and war, and self-interest in the name of the family, still rings devastatingly true in this stirring production.

All My Sons runs at the Eternity Playhouse until December 1

 An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 10