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By Jessica Keath
August 17, 2015
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By Jessica Keath
August 17, 2015
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Andrew Upton’s The Present, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1878 play, Platonov, sets the drama of Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party in post-Gorbachev, '90s Russia. The celebrations bring together a redundant military class at odds with a younger, principled middle class. Widowed Anna (Cate Blanchett) now faces an unsatisfying choice between two powerful ex-military men, Alexei (Martin Jacobs) and Yegor (David Downer), who have the necessary political links for her to sell the oil on her inherited property. Her decision is made none the easier by the fact that she still loves Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh).

Alice Babidge’s design sets the play squarely in the '90s, but it’s not specifically Russian; this could easily be a British or Australian contest between generations for cultural dominance. The setting works, but when sound designer Stefan Gregory chooses 'London Calling' during a scene change, accompanied by a projection of metallic looking dark water, it’s apparent that director John Crowley was aiming for something more potent than a depiction of a disaffected middle class.

Punk politics is the wrong choice for Chekhov — he does middle class ennui, not dissent. While Platonov was not one of Chekhov’s successful plays, his mastery of listlessness and thwarted dreams is alive and well in Upton’s adaptation. Mikhail’s lamentations at his own failure to change the world don’t come from a sense of protest approaching that of The Clash, but from a self-aggrandising expectation that he would one day be a great writer. Even the wet-around-the-ears Kirril (Eamon Farren) isn’t moving to Europe to dance and take drugs out of a political impulse; he simply wants to get high and have a lot of sex.

This is a cast of theatre big guns (Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz), so it’s surprising in the opening scenes that the ensemble comes to less than the sum of its parts. Upton’s adaptation includes frequent moments of hubbub and interjection, which causes confusion in scenes that should function as the narrative setup. The second half is much sharper and consequently more interesting and at times riveting.

This is a handsome-looking piece of theatre with good performances. Roxburgh in particular lights up the huge Roslyn Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre) with ease. The setting of '90s Russia works, but Crowley’s layering on of a punk musical aesthetic is superfluous.

The Present is sold out, but a limited number of Suncorp Twenties tickets are released each Tuesday morning for the following week's performances. More info on how to book.

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