The Present, performed by the Sydney Theatre Company
Adapted by Andrew Upton from Anton Chekhov’s Platonov
Directed by John Crowley

Andrew Upton must have a serious hard-on for Anton Chekhov. Why else dust off a piece of juvenilia that was written more than a century ago and roundly rejected at the time? Why spend months, maybe years, hacking away at the overwritten outpourings of a long-dead Russian. Hell, there’s no shortage of more accessible plays to tinker with.

I don’t know if Upton is excited by what he can do for the work or what the work can do for him. He has mined this territory before with the Sydney Theatre Company; he adapted The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya to great acclaim. Is there more gold in the vein?

I’ve written before about Upton reworking Russian plays with an eye for the comic moments. It’s as if he revels in granting a new perspective on work that’s considered too serious, too complex for modern audiences. I was interested to see how he would reimagine Platanov as
The Present.

The opening scene of the play has Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett) fiddling about with a pistol. It’s a fair indication that there might be some “tragi” with the comedy; Chekhov himself wrote, “never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Petrovna is soon joined on stage by several men who feel the same way about her as Upton does about Chekhov. The occasion for the gathering is her 40th birthday. There is flirting, drinking and quick-fire banter that has the audience laughing heartily – rather than joining in with the pretentious, “I got the joke” laughter typical of theatre crowds.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Platanov, and I was drinking a lot at the time, so I can’t say how close to the original play Upton’s work is. Not very close, at a guess. The production is set in 1990s Russia, ostensibly. Maybe thirty-something Russians broke into Joy Division and Billy Bragg tunes. I’m pretty sure that no one ever spoke of getting a “pie at the service station”. These anachronisms serve to remind us that this could be anywhere, anytime (or that Upton was over it by the end of this project).

The tensions on display are ones we’ve seen written about in Turgenev’s Father and Sons and sung about in Cat Steven’s Father and Son:

Time for a musical interlude.

Not that this play is just about inter-generational conflict, with old men nostalgic about the world that was, young men chafing to see greater change, and middle-aged men struggling to make sense of it all.

In this near-farce, between the jokes, Upton pulls off a sleight of hand and explores The Big Issues. Ribald vodka-soaked party scenes are contrasted with quiet, poignant moments. Womanising Platanov (Richard Roxburgh), so ready to make light of the absurdity of life, cuts a lonely figure in the wreckage of the party. Both his clever words and sexual escapades are exposed as a distraction from – rather than an act of defiance against – the meaningless of existence. We wait to see if he will, as Bertrand Russell wrote, finally march “towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long”. And if he does, will it be too late?

I have rattled on too much about plot and Upton’s Chekhov crush and am running short on time myself. The ensemble cast: faultless. The set design: sparse. The sound design: refreshing. The costumes: Blanchett loves pleated pants. The direction: assured.

The closing tableau reminded me of the final scene of The White Guard. Watching that play I felt Upton had gone for laughs rather than the hard truths in Bulgakov’s work. Maybe I’ve grown softer – less idealistic. As the curtain dropped on The Present, I was glad for the sweetness in the adaptation, making the bitter reality easier to face.