These days, sitting through the end credits of a movie often offers one more morsel of narrative.
For STC’s production of The Present, audiences are advised to enter the auditorium early to catch some pre curtain up action by Cate Blanchett’s Anna.
Anna, the widow of a general, is turning 40 and she has planned a party to celebrate, culminating in a fireworks display. She may also intend to have a firearm display as she produces her late husband’s handgun, a present from the passed.
First guest to arrive is Nikolai, a freshly minted medico and son of Ivan, military contemporary of the General. Nikolai comes bearing a gift of a chess set for Anna. When Ivan arrives, he too is toting trigger power in the form of a double barrelled shotgun.
Among the guests are two other comrades-at-arms, Yegor and Alexei, both of whom have designs on the young widow.
Anna still carries a flame for Mikhail, whom she met eighteen years ago when he was a firebrand rebel and writer ready to take on the world, and rebuild it, better, brighter, bolder, but in the ensuing years has settled into deceptive domesticity as a school teacher, husband and father. His wife, Sasha, supportive and loyal, cannot curb his internal curdling from the bitterness of his self-proclaimed insignificance.
Mikhail’s father was a cohort of Yegor, Ivan and Alexei, and their attendance heightens the disdain he has for that generation and his failure to dismantle it.
Also attending is Sergei, the General’s son, Anna’s stepson, and his new bride, Sophia, who had a relationship with Mikhail years ago. Nikolai’s new girlfriend, Maria, has no past with Mikhail, but presently desires a future with him.
Heirs and henchmen make up the ominously numbered thirteen attendees, a combustible mix of characters and criteria that creates an explosive expose.
There’s so much dazzling star power on stage Nick Schlieper’s splendid lighting almost seems superfluous.
Cate Blanchett is luminous as Anna, twice thwarted in the love stakes, with a husband she loved dying and yearning for Mikhail unconsummated. Left with an estate she cannot manage she faces the prospect of a fiscally forced marriage to Yegor to continue the life she has grown accustomed to and Blanchett balances the strong, stoical sophisticate aspect of Anna with the reckless abandon of youth as youth abandons her.
Richard Roxburgh’s Mikhail is not too far removed from the reprobate Cleaver Green from Rake. Mikhail’s vast intake of vodka acts like Viagra and any venereal venture that presents itself must be taken advantage of, however Roxburgh imbues him with a louche charm rather than licentious lechery.
As the cuckold couple, Sergei and Nikolai, Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz are adroit at both the drama and the comedy their characters generate. Schmitz gives a good milking of that quaint archaic term cuckold, somehow misinterpreting it as leprechaun for added comic mileage, and projects the petulance of a privileged prick precisely, while Ryan’s portrayal is of a person pricked by love, has a genuine pathos.
As Mikhail’s long suffering wife Sasha, Susan Prior mixes patience, pragmatism, compassion and compromise but with push coming to shove, showing a steely reserve. Jacqueline McKenzie as Sophie fields an unfettered fragility with shattering consequences.
As the three “old guard”, David Downer, Martin Jacobs and Marshall Napier embody by degrees the past, the present and the future. Downer (Yegor) the polished oligarch all business and the emotional depth of an automaton, Jacobs (Alexei) the suave sunset soldier whose mind is willing but body is seizing, and Napier (Ivan), the drunkard hunter of avian prey you certainly don’t want pointing guns into Russian air space.
Rounding out the ensemble there’s good work from Eamon Farren as Alexei’s frenetic DJ son, Brandon McClelland as Yegor’s inscrutable son, Dimitri and Andrew Buchanan as Yegor’s muscle, Osip.
Writer Andrew Upton has taken Chekhov’s first untitled play, re-jigged it, updated it to Russia in the 1990’s, post perestroika, and fashioned an expansive, exuberant and entertaining text, electrifyingly realised by director John Crowley and his wonderful cast.
Alice Babidge sets design is exquisitely executed from the errant blades of grass shooting through the pavers of the patio, to rain lashed windows intimating a human fish tank, an aquarium of acrimony.
The Present is a towering theatrical experience, triggering drama, detonating laughs.
Anna says, during the play, “Some days are magazines, some days are books.”
In this production of The Present, some scenes are magazines, some scenes are books.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
After Anton Chekhov’s Platonov
by Andrew Upton
Director John Crowley
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 4 August – 19 September 2015
Tickets: from $93
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au