By Tulis McCall
For Anton Chekov fans you will be relieved to know that Andrew Upton has cut the play from 5 hours down to a fat three replete with the requisite array of many ways to say the same thing. For us mortals, this is a play that stretches time the way the rack stretched a body – slowly and painfully. That is, it is slow and painful when anyone other than the aforementioned twosome (as well as the exceptional Toby Schmitz who acquits himself very well indeed) are speaking, or emoting, or whatever.
The event in question is Anna (Blanchett) and her 40th birthday. She is the widow of a famous general, and the party takes place on her estate. She invites her stepson, Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his wife, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), and Nikolai’s girlfriend, Maria (Anna Bamford). Also included are two older gentlemen neighbors who are potential marriage material because they have money and Anna does not.
If she had her ‘druthers, however, she would take Mikail (Roxburgh) with whom she has been friends and almost lovers for decades. The two of them speak the language of love that is so sensuous, intimate and intelligent it makes your head spin. Watching them together is so transfixing you almost want to turn away because voyeurism on this sort of relationship feels a little tawdry.
While Anna and Mikhail swerve though each others radar over the weekend, this does not stop Mikhail from slithering after every other woman at the party with the exception of his frumpy wife. Sophia is a former lover who has never post her fantasy about Mikhail – partly because her husband is a nebbish methinks – and Maria wants Mikhail because she does. End of analysis. This sexual spinning becomes the axis for the play, and were the acting skills of equal merit it might have worked. This is not the case, however, so that the tug-of-war nearly causes the play to flatline.
Add to this the fact that the play could have been cut by another hour, and you have a fairly unsatisfactory evening. I say this with caution because, in the case of Blanchett and Roxburgh you want these scenes to simply never end. Watching them is a transfixing experience. The rest of the cast does not demonstrate the same skills of handling a text. This young Chekov goes deep with his words and digs specifications out of the very souls of his characters who are caught in the present between the future, for which they long, and the past, from which they flee. Had the other actors been up to the task, this would have been an altogether different event.
As it is, attending this play for these two performances is an extraordinary experience.
The Present – Written by Andrew Upton, adapted from “Platonov” by Anton Chekhov; Directed by John Crowley
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford, Andrew Buchanan, David Downer, Eamon Farren, Martin Jacobs, Brandon McClelland, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior, Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz
Produced by Stuart Thompson and Sydney Theater Company, Originally Produced by Sydney Theater Company, Music by Stefan Gregory, Directed by John Crowley, Scenic Design by Alice Babidge; Costume Design by Alice Babidge; Lighting Design by Nick Schlieper; Sound Design by Stefan Gregory
Runtime 2 hrs. and 55 min.