The Present After Anton Chekhov’s Platonov by Andrew Upton…a theatre review by Deb Meyer

August 24, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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What do British punk rock music, Russian vodka (copious amounts of it), an acclaimed Irish director and a stellar Australian cast have in common? They all feature in Andrew Upton’s explosive adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov at the Sydney Theatre Company.

2S4A8830As the first of Chekhov’s plays, the seven-hour long manuscript, without a title, was written when he was around 20 years old and studying medicine. The play was only found in 1923, in a safe deposit box, 19 years after the playwright’s death. Despite its many criticisms from scholars around the world, such as the plays length and immaturity, Platonov, as the play is commonly called, has since inspired many adaptations.

As Upton highlights, he has “cut and shifted quite a bit from the original”, stripping the play to just over two and a half hours, incorporating the main character and updating it from 1880 to 1995 modern Russia. Language, movement and music have been heavily modernised.

THE PRESENT after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, follows the widowed Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), who has brought together a gathering of friends, relatives and two elderly suitors to help celebrate her 40th birthday, at her country estate. The play explores the ensuing conflict between the characters and the heightened sexual tension between Anna and the married schoolmaster Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh). As the philandering Russian Don Juan, Platonov also seduces Sophia (Jacqueline Mackenzie) – newly married to his best friend Sergei (Chris Ryan) as well as the beautiful young Maria (Anna Bamford) – the girlfriend of his good friend Nikolai (Toby Schmitz).

2S4A8467The Present clearly has its focus on youth and idealism, on loss of youth, possibilities and happiness, on the conflict of generations and the torment of time. After twenty years of marriage, for Platonov “one long renovation”, he laments being stuck in time unable to move forward or make anything of his life. According to director John Crowley, all the characters are “pretty useless at being in the present”, with the focus keenly on the past and future.

There’s a real sadness in this play, yet moments of great humour, with the play switching from comedy to tragedy, with farce and melodrama thrown in the mix. One of the criticisms of Chekhov’s Platonov over the years, has been the play’s inconsistency in tone. With Upton’s The Present, it’s no different. According to the Russian critic Mikhail Gromov, “The play is… at the same time, a drama, comedy and vaudeville… but chaotic in a way that bore a remarkable resemblance to the reality of Russian life.” Perhaps it also resembles the inconsistency and chaos of youth.

The superb set design, by Alice Babidge and lighting design, by Nick Schlieper, also reflects this inconsistency and switches between realism and other worldliness.

International theatre and film Director, John Crowley, has boldly brought this adaptation to life, creating a truly explosive production full of surprises and extremes. There’s playfulness, sexuality and humour extracted at every opportunity. The dinner party scene, in particular, is a masterclass in direction, with characters becoming increasingly intoxicated, with dramatic and sexual tensions flaring. The debauched behaviour and dancing that ensues is very, very funny.

The real highlight of the Act and the play is the intimate scene between Anna and Platonov, after the others have left the dinner party. Their sense of familiarity, sexual longing and deep regret is beautifully crafted. Blanchett and Roxburgh weave magic when they’re on stage together and their chemistry is unmistakable. Blanchett’s ability to turn from composed host to fearful widow and from bored to brazen, with control, nuance and authenticity, is brilliant to watch.

2S4A9710Jacqueline McKenzie too is wonderful as the newly married Sophia who falls under the spell of the manipulative Platonov. Anna Bamford, as the beautiful Maria, as well as Susan Prior, as Platonov’s forgiving wife Sasha, also give excellent performances.

Toby Schmitz highlights his impressive stage presence as Nikolai, the young doctor and Chris Ryan plays the sweet but spineless Sergei with great conviction. The older male suitors – Martin Jacobs (Alexai) and David Downer (Yegor), as well as Marshall Napier (Ivan), Andrew Buchanan (Osip), Eamon Farren (Kirill)and Brandon McClelland (Dimitri) all give superb acting performances.

In the pivotal role of Platonov, Roxburgh is brilliantly cast, albeit to type, playing the self-absorbed, judgemental ‘smart-arse’ (as Upton might describe) or the charismatic but disillusioned provincial intellectual (as Chekhov may describe). He desires deeper meaning in life but in reality lives on the surface, unable to connect with what is truly most important to him. His inner emptiness has disastrous results for everyone around him.

Even with Roxburgh’s fine acting, it is difficult to find great empathy for ‘That Fool Platonov’ (the title of the 1956 French theatre production) and in the final scene, in its heightened melodrama, falls unfortunately flat.

In adapting Platonov for a current day audience, The Present may well be considered ‘over the top’ and ‘try hard’ (to use modern-day vernacular). However, despite its flaws, the production is far more remarkable for its strengths than its weaknesses, and by taking a scalpel to the ‘long play without a title’, written by a 20-year-old medical student, Andrew Upton and his team at the STC have created an entertaining Chekhovian comedy.

THE PRESENT After Anton Chekhov’s Platonov

by Andrew Upton

Directed by John Crowley

Produced by Sydney Theatre Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre – Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW 2000

From August 4, 2015 until September 19, 2015

Performances: Mon- 6.30pm,Tue- Sat 7:30pm, Wed – 1pm, Sat – 1.30pm, Sun 2pm & 7.30pm

Tickets: From $93

To book tickets contact the STC Box Office Tel: (02) 9250 1777

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