This month, Sydney Theatre Company premiered “The Present”, Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s first and unfinished play, sometimes called “Platonov”. Eight years after Upton and his wife, Cate Blanchett, took over as joint artistic directors, this is their final curtain call.
Let it be said, this isn’t Chekhov at his greatest. The original play is a baggy five hours long; this version cuts it down and yanks it into Nineties Russia. At Saturday night’s opening, Blanchett flounced and cavorted across the stage as Anna Petrovna, the hostess of a country-house party that goes awry. It is a story that doesn’t know if it’s comic or tragic, full of people who don’t know if they’re comic or tragic. But this is no problem for Blanchett, who is variously arch, reckless and brittle. She has only to drop her voice, lean back and say, “I hate chess”, to get a laugh.
Avid theatre-goers might notice something familiar here. The play follows the company’s feted 2010 production of “Uncle Vanya”, which starred Blanchett as Yelena. When it later toured to Washington, DC, the critic Ben Brantley wrote that his three hours watching it were among the happiest in his theatre-going life. That play, like this one, was adapted by Upton, who does a brisk side business in retooling Russian greats. And Richard Roxburgh, who was Vanya, is now Mikhail Platonov, a stagnating schoolmaster (above, with Blanchett). It feels like an old gang getting back together, perhaps for the last time.
Sydney has got used to Blanchett treading the boards, serving as a kind of rarefied house actor, usually appearing in one company show a season. Besides her Chekhovian outings, she has acted in Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Botho Strauss’s “Gross und Klein”. She has been Blanche DuBois and Richard II. In her time at STC Blanchett has done more theatre, it’s safe to say, than any other actor who is also a Hollywood star. She also jointly ran the company and directed plays—alongside raising a young family.
It’s remarkable that Blanchett did what she did—throwing herself into theatre at the age of 37 and effectively dropping out of Hollywood for a time. When I interviewed her in 2011, for an Intelligent Life profile, she was frank about the trade-off: “I’m committed to acting on stage and have done it at least once a year, and that means on a very prosaic level not putting the children to bed for six weeks, so then I don’t really want to go off and make another film.”
It’s often said that major parts dry up for women over 40, but soon after Blanchett stepped down as artistic director in 2012, leaving Upton to go solo, she won a second Oscar for her turn in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. She and Upton are set to move to Los Angeles next year and there are more films in the pipeline: “Truth”, with Robert Redford, out in October in America, and “Carol”, a Patricia Highsmith tale with Rooney Mara, due in November. Blanchett is also slated to direct an Australian television series about a schizophrenic woman, Cornelia Rau, who was detained after being mistaken for an illegal immigrant.
As for what Blanchett and Upton achieved at STC, the heart of the role was always curatorial. They didn’t always please everyone—for some, their programming was too postmodern, for others too vanilla. But they successfully assembled 12-play seasons that balanced popular appeal with experimentation. They used Blanchett’s bankability to push difficult plays like “Gross und Klein”, and they staged works like Wayne Blair’s “Bloodland”, which was performed in Yolngu, an Aboriginal language.
From the beginning, Upton and Blanchett kept a wish list of directors they wanted. Among those who said yes were Liv Ullmann, Tamás Ascher, Steven Soderbergh and, in 2010, Philip Seymour Hoffman. They toured plays abroad, raising the company’s standing—“Often what happens is that work isn’t valued until it has an international pedigree,” Blanchett told me in 2011—and along the way convinced people that it wasn’t completely weird for an Australian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to travel to America.
And now we have “The Present”. The story goes that Chekhov wrote the play for Maria Yermolova, star of the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg. She can’t have been all that impressed because she didn’t perform it. Still, the signs of what Chekhov the playwright would become are here in this story, and it’s something to watch Blanchett on stage if you ever have the chance. Chekhov was discouraged when he didn’t get his Maly Theatre actress; he couldn’t have dreamed that he’d get this one instead.
The Present Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until September 19th