What is now known to be Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, was an unpublished manuscript discovered a decade after the playwright’s 1904 death. His sister had called it “a long play without a title”, and it remains an obscure component of the master’s oeuvre. Andrew Upton’s The Present is an adaptation of the aforementioned work by the young Chekhov, and is significantly transformed from its original manifestation. The play is now updated, with events moved to the mid 1990’s, and its structure and language thoroughly altered to address our present day's sensibilities.
The play reads like a tribute to Chekhov, with his distinctively dry sense of humour and his legacy in Russian realism featuring prominently in its style and tone. But The Present is much more powerful and immediately provocative than its predecessor. Act One begins with Anna Petrovna firing a pistol into the audience, an act of aggression that warns us of the exhilarating ride that is to follow. Scenes are short and sharp, with vibrant characters full of intriguing quirk engaging in intense dialogue. Even in its early moments before “shit went down” (Upton’s words), tension is palpable and we always sense that an eruption is imminent. In fact, the play is repeatedly explosive, and at three hours, its ability to keep us on the edge of our seats is a remarkable achievement.
Directing the production is John Crowley who introduces a wild and ferocious energy to the typically Chekhovian setting of gentries before enforcing an air of restraint over its characters to create a sense of agonising oppression that threatens to burst at the seams with every hint of conflict and confrontation. Crowley’s astounding ability to sustain the very satisfying comedy of the production throughout its increasingly disastrous and painful chain of revelations, creates a rare viewing response that is strangely potent. The tragicomedy manages to elicit feelings that alternate between mirthfulness and dread, almost to reflect the complexity of lived experience, and surprises us with the unexpected sensation of having these seemingly incompatible emotions co-exist singularly.
The philosophical aspects of The Present are undeniable, but they are presented with subtlety and benevolence, frequently through metaphor and symbolism not unlike Chekhov’s preferred mode of expression. Often with a playful though ultimately poignant approach, we are urged to consider its universal themes from a personal perspective. Love and loss, honesty and delusion, hope and despair, all become resonant dichotomies, no matter our distance from the Russian summer of 1993. Design elements of the show (set deign by Alice Babidge and lighting by Nick Schlieper) are elegant and fairly minimal. The space is dutifully manipulated to frame performance and to aide the projection of its actors’ work so that our attention falls squarely on their unbelievably nuanced portrayals. There are no distractions from what the play wishes to convey, although its central construct of materialism versus truth, might be a bitter pill for some regardless of the clarity at which the message is laid on stage.
Cate Blanchett attacks her role and the tenets of the text with a forceful conviction that can only emerge from the extremely talented. The star’s undisguisable passion for her craft is a coherent match for the determination and fortitude of Anna, a woman coming very close to the end of her tether. Her portrayal of drunken and unhinged abandonment in Act Two is sheer theatrical delight and a beautiful blend of studied precision with courageous impulse. Blanchett’s incredible allure keeps us spellbound and she uses it to deliver the many thoughtful intentions of the play, which we absorb with enthusiastic acquiescence. Mikhail, the self-loathing cad brimming with regret, is played by the equally stellar Richard Roxburgh, with magnificent comedic aplomb. His flawless timing and uncanny capacity to intuit his audience’s temperament at all times, ensures that we are fascinated, entertained, shocked and moved, at his will. Roxburgh amuses us with outrageous frivolity, while lucidly communicating his character’s experiences and troubles at impressive depth. We identify intimately with Mikhail’s destruction and the actor’s work leaves us wanting for nothing.
Questioning life, is not a daily preoccupation for many, but it is the business of artists to investigate and challenge the way we view our world, and then present to us, all that they discover. Upton’s The Present is concerned with contemporary life, and the choices we make as individuals. It is interested in the definitions of fulfilment, success and happiness, and Upton gifts us with the urgent encouragement for the pursuit of enlightenment while time rushes past. Life is meaningless without death, and while the end is always nigh, it is the now that must be cherished. It is in the now that we must find redemption.