Andrew Upton’s The Present is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s earliest play, originally untitled but most often known as Platonov. Upton has condensed the lengthy original to a fast paced, relatable piece with modern dialogue; it now spans three hours but feels much shorter because it is brimming with a palpable energy and attack.
Chekhov’s original work was initially critiqued for its inconsistent tone, jumping between tragedy, melodrama, and farce. In this adaptation, Upton and director John Crowley have balanced that tonal ambiguity and used it to echo the play’s visceral nature.
As a team they have honed in on the sense of deep dissatisfaction within their cast of characters: every character, in their own way, is torn between longing for the past and fearing the future. None of them, it seems, are fully able to reconcile themselves with where they are in the present.
Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett) waits for her fortieth birthday party to start and before the house lights are even down, she fires a gun into the audience. Immediately, she has our attention.
Petrovna is a beloved widow surrounded by her admirers at this party. She is clearly a master manipulator, working to change the wants of her friends and associates, although they don’t always know it. Blanchett, as Petrovna, bubbles with enthusiasm and youthful energy in the beginning of the show, in an attempt to mask the fears that occasionally rise to the surface.
Petrovna’s party is occasionally so busy it’s hard to follow, but so is talk at every lunch party with an eclectic mix of old friends. The friends had a daunting, sprawling web of relationships that were hard to understand at first, and Upton’s script relies on the audience to decipher throwaway cues to map the web, but that work is largely rewarding.
As the first act progresses Petrovna can’t quite hide the dark intensity and instability lurking beneath the chatter. Blanchett handles Petrovna’s seemingly uncontrollable emotional extremes well – a complex dichotomy of grace and power.
Similarly, the rest of the cast successfully meets the challenge of portraying their complex and multifaceted characters. Every person at the party, while markedly different, is grappling with where they have arrived in their lives; posing a potent challenge to the audience to do the same. Susan Prior as Sasha is self-deprecating and lovable, Jacqueline McKenzie’s Sophia is ambitious and self-assured, and Chris Ryan’s Sergei is kind hearted and foolish.
The second act feels more abstract, and steers us more towards Petrovna’s past lover, Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh). Platonov is the one most frustrated with his inability to marry the reality of his present with the ideals he once had for his future, and the only one to really articulate this struggle. He sees the surface of life shimmering past, the feeling that time is passing through him and he is observing life rather than being a part of it.
This happens in a beautiful moment that is so well written and so truthfully realised by Roxburgh that it speaks to the core of the human experience: Platonov has been so defeated by the confrontations of the night, but more so by the challenges of his life, and in an intimate moment between he and Petrovna, he shares his constant anxiety that he is not truly experiencing the depths of life. Petrovna questions the need to experience anything on any level deeper than the surface, but this idea hangs in the air between the two for the rest of the scene.
Roxburgh, whilst crucial in the first act, drives the show in the second half with a raw emotional honesty that somewhat explains his foolish and hurtful actions. His scenes with Blanchett were some of the most moving and intense moments in the piece; both actors holding such emotional vulnerability behind a façade of authority, and only truly revealing the extent of their agony with each other.
Although all of the characters are so evidently flawed, it is difficult not to empathise with their struggles. The many moments of humour in the piece are not simply enjoyable; they help us connect more with the characters – even if at times the laughter distracts from more intimate moments of despair.
Alice Babidge’s set design is a simple yet idealised backdrop to the story; providing a tangible, realistic house with an element of ‘rough illusion’. The pristine country house is familiar and convincing yet with something not quite real about it; a perfect white house with perfectly clean cut edges and little to give it a ‘homely’ atmosphere, adding an abstract overtone to the physicality of the piece.
Similarly, the scene changes with lighting by Nick Schlieper and sound by Stefan Gregory are almost otherworldly in a play that seems firmly grounded in realism, hinting at the chaos of emotional uncertainty on stage.
In Crowley’s program notes, this play takes place in ‘a classic Chekhovian place, hovering just above action, not quite in the moment, not quite in the past, just a few feet above reality’. Under Crowley’s tense direction, Upton’s confronting and insightful artistic vision and the ability of the cast to truly encapsulate the insecurities and complexities of the characters, The Present takes us on a journey of emotional turmoil and intellectual questioning, forcing us in the audience to question where we are in life, how we got there and whether we’re able to reach the potential we once dreamed for ourselves.