Adapted by Andrew Upton from Anton Chekhov’s “Platonov”Until September 19 at
the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Tickets $20-$1509250 1777,
Review by Irina Dunn
From left: Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s "The Present" (©Lisa Tomasetti)
STC Artistic Director Andrew Upton’s decision to shift the period of Chekhov’s play from Tsarist to post-Soviet times in the mid 1990s was a good call: he understood that the ennui and sense of futility Chekhov identified in the characters under his dramatic microscope also pervaded the same social class living under the crushing and confusing weight of a society undergoing similarly monumental changes.
Presiding over a cast of 13 related friends and relatives are Cate Blanchett, as the merry widow Anna Petrovna on the eve of her 40th birthday, and Richard Roxburgh as Mikhail Platonov, the disillusioned schoolteacher and frustrated rake.
Irish director John Crowley has assembled a talented cast who gather to celebrate Anna’s birthday. They include: Jacqueline McKenzie, playing the doctor Sophia who fled Communist Russia to go to Africa, returning to a capitalist country and a reawakened passion for her former lover Platonov; Susan Prior as Sasha, Platonov’s complacent wife who, surprisingly, deserts him by the end of the play; Toby Schmitz as Nikolai, Sasha’s sarcastic brother who, like his brother-in-law, has a great fondness for vodka; Chris Ryan as Sergei, Anna’s stepson, whose wife deserts him for Platonov.
Also present are the representatives of an earlier generation, David Downer (Yegor), Martin Jacobs (Alexei) and Marshall Napier (Ivan), who must take their share of responsibility for the state of their society. They are joined by Eamon Farren as Alexei’s son Kirill, Brandon McClelland as Yegor’s son Dimitri and Andrew Buchanan as Yegor’s bodyguard Osip, who “elopes” with Sasha and her child by Platonov.
With such a large cast, it takes the first act to get all the characters and their relationships sorted out, but once that is done, the action becomes explosive when the charismatic Anna blows up the summer house where she and her guests have just shared her birthday meal.
Chekhov said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”. Not content with one firearm, Chekhov gets Anna to produce her late husband’s handgun early in the opening scene, and shortly after, newly graduated medico Nikolai comes to the party with a shotgun in hand. We the audience just know that something awful is going to happen.
In the second act, Platonov sits in the smoking ruins and wallows in alcoholic self-pity as his lovers parade before him. He promises to visit the Nikolai’s girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) in half an hour but his intention is interrupted when Sophia turns up professing her undying love for him and leaves. A teary Sergei appears and accuses him of wrecking his life by seducing his wife Sophia.
Finally, Anna appears and it is clear that the old flame between them has never been extinguished.
Anna is facing the unpalatable choice of marrying for money in order to save her estate, having lost a much older husband whom she loved, and never consummating, nor likely to consummate, her youthful love for Platonov.
The last act plays out the tragi-comedy to its inevitable conclusion, with Nikolai and Sergei providing the farcical resentment of cuckolds, and Sophia and Maria bitterly accepting that Platonov is not interested in them.
Anna calls for calm amid the flying cross-currents of antipathy and acrimony and says to her guests “Don't be mean”, but it is too late. The die is cast, and Chekhov’s gun must go off before the curtain comes down.
By the end of Upton’s adaptation, we are totally engrossed in this company of poor erring and pitiful human beings – a testament to Chekhov’s great understanding of character and to the extraordinary performances elicited by Andrew Upton’s text and director Crowley’s feel for its nuances.
Designer Alice Babidge, lighting designer Nick Schlieper and composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory contribute greatly to making this a memorable and must see production.
This is likely to be Cate Blanchett’s last appearance on an Australian stage for quite a while, so I urge you to see what this fine actor can do in an ensemble without surrendering any of her extraordinary theatrical presence.