Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8
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.
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