Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Present, Sydney Theatre Company

It took me a while to warm to Anton Chekhov. His plays can feel like nothing very interesting is happening - people are just gathering, talking, and then wandering away, moping about their wishes and dreams but never apparently doing very much to achieve those things.

And then I got older, and the songs of failed experiences started to resonate a bit more, and suddenly I got it. It possibly also helped that I started reading translations and seeing productions that made the ennui urgent and pressing, rather than vague and ephemeral. It probably also helped that I acted in one of the plays in a really minor role so I got to watch one of his plays repeatedly and got to see the subtle ironies and structural power of his plays at work (my acting career is a long series of shows where I've spent more time getting into my costume than I have on stage - trust me, I don't write this stuff because I think I can do better than the actors involved).

"The Present" isn't entirely typical Chekhov - yes, it's set in Russia (although in this case the translation has made a vague update to the 1990s) and it is largely about frustration and lack of success - but it's adapted from a script that was never performed during Chekhov's lifetime, never had a title, and would take 5 hours to perform in its entirety. Previously adapted under titles like "Platanov", "Don Juan in the Russian Manner" and "Wild Honey", any version has to pick what to concentrate on, but all versions do centre around Platanov, a schoolmaster who holds a strange but irresistible fascination to the entire female cast (in this production, he's played by Richard Roxburgh, who largely convinces partially by more resignedly accepting their attentions rather than wildly skirt-chasing). Andrew Upton's adaptation is on its strongest ground when the action remains focussed on Platanov. Elsewhere, it can be a little diffuse - the opening ten-fifteen minutes, in particular, feel a tad aimless (despite beginning with a bang, literally, as Cate Blanchett shoots a pistol into the auditorium to bring the houselights down). Blanchett's Ana Petrovna, the owner of the estate on which all the action takes place and around who's birthday the events are timed, has some bravura sequences - in particular, some wild business with a detonator, some sexy dancing and a chance to show off some damn shapely legs, all in act two, but much of the business relating to her two older suitors and her desire to hold the estate together is rather unfocussed, while her scenes opposite Roxburgh burn with intensity and passion.

Elsewhere there is some unevenness. Chris Ryan does a great line in peevish betrayal, and Toby Schmitz is at his best in Act Four when he's been shattered (his early act one material does feel a little like Schmitz's greatest hits, as there's a lot of the familiar sarcastic ease that's been in a number of his performances - he's good at it, but it's familiar stuff). Jaqueline McKenzie doesn't seem to get a chance to transition properly onstage from aloof coldness to passionate engagement - it's like a switch was flipped backstage - which does mean she's only given half a character to work with, it's watching the transitions that is interesting. Marshall Napier is great fun to watch but does seem to have recieved the direction "play it like Brian Blessed" and siezed it with gusto. Eamon Farren's disreputable Kirill is wonderfully sleezy but seems to have wandered in from another play when he abruptly shows up in act two, and wanders out before the climax of the action.

In short, this was a production that had a lot of good actors doing good work, but in a show that wasn't always as focussed as it might be. The high point in act three (where in an exploded void, Platanov is confronted by lovers and betrayed friends in regular succession) is where the writing is most focussed on the, basically, high-class-sex farce which Chekov actually wrote (though his ending, which is one of those "the quickest way to resolve this is to shoot someone", doesn't quite ring with the best of his endings, where the worst punishment you can impose on these characters is to let them keep living with themselves. So this is sorta a case of a fine sympony orchestra playing a composer's lower-order works - you can spot echoes of the good stuff but it isn't all the best tunes.

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