Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Present

Photo by Steven Chee
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and UBS present, THE PRESENT, from Anton Chekhov's PLATONOV, by Andrew Upton, 8 August - 19 September, 2015.

THE PRESENT, is an adaptation by Andrew Upton of the, Russian, Anton Chekhov play, PLATONOV. PLATONOV was a play found "among papers 'accessioned to the Central State Literary Archive in 1920.' from items found in a Moscow bank depositors safe. This box was that of M.P. Chekhov - Maria Pavlovna Chekhov's safe deposit box. She, the fiercely devoted sister of Anton. In 1923, the Soviet literary scholar, Nikolai Belchikov, introduced and annotated the previously unpublished play by Anton Chekhov. There is no certainty about when the play was written, but it seems there is some plausibility given to the idea that Chekhov drafted it in 1878, when he was 18, (OMG 18!) and that it was finished in 1881, and offered to the actress, Maria Yermolova, of the Maly Theatre, but was not presented. Some evidence exists, that allows further surmises, that Chekhov continued to work on the text until as late as 1883. In 1887, a new Chekhov play, IVANOV, appeared and, so, PLATONOV disappeared. The original text is long and unwieldly (it seems some 4-5 hours of material) and has been adapted by many writers, and thus there are as many versions and emphasis from the original, as there are, artists.

I have read the text used in the 1960 Royal Court production, Directed by George Devine and starring Rex Harrison; I have read and seen, the famous Michael Frayn, 1984 version, WILD HONEY; and as recently as last year, I saw the adaptation by Anthony Skuse, for Mophead, Catnip Productions and the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), simply called PLATONOV. The play has had various titles in its international adaptations: FATHERLESSNESS - the original drafted title; THE WORTHLESS MAN PLATONOV - the 1928, German title; POOR DON JUAN -the 1954, Swedish title; THAT FOOL PLATONOV - the 1956, French title; PLATONOV - the 1960, English title; PIANO by Trevor Griffiths -1980, another English title; WILD HONEY - the 1984, English title, and now THE PRESENT - the 2015, Australian title. Platonov, then, variously defined as man, Don Juan, fool, wild honey and present!

Andrew Upton tells us in his message from the Artistic Director, in the program:
... I was able to revamp the play specifically for the STC, to which end I had in mind most of this fabulous cast and indeed John Crowley as Director. I believe an adaptation should be tailor-made to the production because, although the play itself will stand the test of time, most adaptations are only useful in relation to their specific production outing. I have brought the play up-to-date (kind of) and set it in Russia in about 1995, with the rise of the oligarchs, post-perestroika. This has given me a lot of freedom with the play, so I have cut and shifted quite a bit from the original. Remaining at its centre, however are Mikhail Platonov, Anna Petrovna, Sergei, Nikolai and Sophia, for the dynamic that Chekhov concocted between these five characters triggers such fabulous drama. ...
There are some of Australia's (Sydney's) favourite actors in this company. There are, also, some of Australia's outstanding actors involved. THE PRESENT, in four scenes over three hours, begins at the gathering of the friends of Anna (Cate Blanchett) on the day before her 40th birthday. Her step-son, Sergei (Chris Ryan) has arrived with his new bride, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie) - an ex-squeeze of Mikhail Platonov; his friend-neighbour, Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) with his latest girl-friend, Maria (Anna Bamford), all awaiting their university companion, Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxbrugh), to arrive. He does with his wife, Sasha (Susan Prior), and their new born son. Other guests invited to Anna's party, she, a widow, being in a 'game' of flirtation, because of money problems, has encouraged two wealthy suitors (despite her own infatuation with Mikhail), one a propertied neighbour, Alexi (Martin Jacobs), who is accompanied by his son Kiril (Eamon Farren); and business oligarch, Yegor (David Downer), who, too, is accompanied by his son, Dimitri (Brandon McClelland). Others in the party guest mix are a retired army 'relic', Ivan (Marshall Napier), and a foreman on the property staff, Osip (Andrew Buchanan).

The two scenes of the first act are broadly played for character-comedy, establishing the relationships and the cultural/social 'role'-plays of each of the people in the action of the plotted scenario, to give us the 'histories' of the group of party-goers and a sense of the emotional 'playing field'. In the first long scene, long set-up revelations, the exposition of the play's circumstances, are given to us with naturalistic activities (in front of a 'symbolist' anonymous, all grey house-front with working glass doors, around a small table and two chairs, that, with a wooden garden bench, are the only furniture on the black paint stage floor, Designed by Alice Babidge). It begins with a kind of "get-on-your-marks, get-set, GO!", firing of a gun, aimed directly at the audience by Anna (one thinks of the ominous Hedda Gabler pistol 'pop'), followed by chess games, present unwrapping, drinks, smoking, hugs and greetings - hand shakes, air kissing - all, orchestrated with over-lapping conversation and the kind of psychological, physical 'teasings' that only the well-used to each other, can be part of. Mr Upton, takes free rein with his comic pen on top of the Chekhov raw material with relish.

Too, the usual thematic pre-occupations of Chekhov (it is interesting to see their presence here in this early juvenile play and to note the power of that pre-occupation in all his plays, especially the later great masterpieces, UNCLE VANYA and THREE SISTERS): the realising of the frustrations that the PRESENT time has revealed to them all, of the failures of their youthful ambitions, and the speed and the nature, difficulty, of 'fleet-footed' TIME. It appears as a prescient shadow on the gaiety of the unfolding, everyday behaviour of the participants in this story. Mikhail Platonov, the once promising university idealist, finding himself, simply, now, only a local country school teacher magnifies his sense of the his own mediocrity, reflected around him by his once ambitious fellow companions, Nikolai and Sergei, to whom he had  judged himself, way back - still does - to be a superior being (one of the oddities of this production is the obvious age disparity of Mr Schmitz and Mr Ryan, to the supposed university companion played by Mr Roxburgh - a visual decade or more is apparent - odd, and a little confusing), both now, too, similarly underachievers of their youthful dreams.

The second scene is in the dining/party space in the gazebo (thrust close to the stage edge, featuring windows and doors - not much other architectural detail - decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons), after the food and beverages have well and truly taken their physiological and psychological anaesthetic toll. Tempers and manners have become dangerously stretched in their attenuation and when their social standards ultimately snap, 'drunken' chaos ensues, with all behaving badly, culminating in farcical emotional inter-active explosions, the climax being the actual deliberate 'Semtex' explosive destruction of the gazebo. Ms Blanchett's Anna outrageously gyrates on a table,  between two grinding men, the father and son, played by Mr Jacobs and Mr Farren, in a particularly frenzied disco-dancing sequence, causing much laughter from the audience (is it the daring and abandon of Ms Blanchett or Anna that we are responding to?), and the nauseating, sexist, Don Juanish behaviour by Mikhail, too, scores laughs galore (for some of us it seems to be a stage performance given by the eponymous Cleaver Green of the television RAKE series - he, too possessed by Mr Roxburgh), floats one into a comic euphoria with only one brief moment of contrary true danger entering the episodes, caused by the oligarchical capitalist's son, Dimitri, thrillingly played in a very brief interlude by young Mr McClelland in a remarkable 'bringing-down-to-earth' exchange with Mikhail, giving, briefly, a glimmer of a possible spine to what otherwise, so far has been just a 'champagne' comic-vaudeville of the follies of spoilt people of a particularly 'Russian' caste/cast (check out the film LEVIATHAN (2015) - Andrey Zvyagintsev). If comedy was all you wanted, then the interval was a very pleasant pastime.

The third scene begins within the frame-work of the supposed blasted gazebo (the Designed look, merely, an empty frame - with no 'stain' or appearance of blasting), Mikhail seated centre stage on a chair, in front of a vacant skyscape with the roiling fog machine creating an impression of a kind of Powell-Pressburger, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), ennui. It appears to be an out of this world world, an out of this body interlude for Mikhail Platanov, in a highly stylised atmosphere, who is confronted by the 'satellites' of the world that he has been, so far, man-handling/spinning with an arrogant, condescending attitude, and now, in a drunken depression, attempts some soul-searching present 'reckoning' of his real position - standing - in this world, especially because of the withering gambits of his own exacting demands upon others. It is here that the guest Director, John Crowley, seems to make an error of choice (or is it he is just unfamiliar/ignorant of the 'habits' of his actors?) for each of the protagonists that come to Mikhail, in this production, brought on with them only a farcical-comic tone to their text, without any true spine of the Chekhovian dramatic human quandary, not showing the ambiguous distance between the tragic/comic behaviours of what it is to be human, of having the aspirations of an angel but the habits of an animal.

That tone was disastrously set by Mr Ryan, who 'guys' the tragic emotional depth of Sergei. (In observation, Mr Ryan seems to instinctively respond in his craft opportunities to a comic 'piss-take' mode to the emotional dilemmas of his characters, e.g. Boris in CHILDREN OF THE SUN, Christian in CYRANO DE BERGERAC). For, the actor, permitted by Mr Crowley, deliberately, exaggeratedly 'pretends' to comic effect for the audience, instead of experiencing the emotional depths of his character's grief of recognition that the woman of his dreams (Sophia) has never truthfully requited him with love - his recent marriage a love-sham. It ought to have been, could have been, a balancing of a truthful choice with the human comedy of a bewildered cuckold, so as to make a truer realisation of the values of all of Chekhov's writing (his short stories as well), instead of the 'silly-ass'-'Aussie-bloke piss-take' tradition he seemed to be reaching into. It  would have made better sense for the action of his scenes and, more importantly, assisted the action of the other characters that follow, procession-like, to the feet of Mikhail. Not one of the actors that followed in the dramatic schemata, not even the usually perspicacious, intuitive and immensely skilful Ms Blanchett, could bring with her, to the central figure of Mikhail, any secured redress for the serious, comic-tragic intention of Chekhov/Upton. The final short act of the play, set comfortably in a well dressed lounge, or reading room in the house, felt oddly chaotic and emotionally truncated, so that the unravelling of all of the overnight events of the scenario, those having occurred off-stage between the last scene and now, became complicatedly difficult to comprehend. The climax of the play, the firing, once again of the famous "Chekhov gun", became oddly bewildering and emotionally bereft of impact.

In summary, the production (the play?) was a comic success in its first half, but a little more than off-balance in the more dramatic developments of the second. The famous comic/tragic elements of the Chekhov canon, are adapted more successfully in the film version of the PLATONOV play, in UNFINISHED PIECE FOR A PLAYER PIANO (1977), Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. THE PRESENT, is a relative disappointment (there is a play version of the film called PIANO, by Trevor Grifiths - 1980, as well). Even, Michael Frayn's version, WILD HONEY, seems to be a more balanced adaptation, pathetic, empathetic and comic.

I saw this production twice in an attempt to fathom my disappointment.  I even re-read Mr Upton's early play - one not based upon, around, another playwright's work - RIFLEMIND (it, by the way, being much better than I remembered the production to be - it deserves a second look, I reckon), because I had felt the echoes of some of its themes in this adaptation of the Chekhov by Mr Upton, and true to my instinct there it was, amongst other generalisations, in a speech from the broken wife of the play, Lynn :
I got so angry on the way to the pub. So angry and I was glad. I was like this [explosion happening]. But walking home was. Terrifying. So good at passion I thought but no idea about love. Over and over. Good at passion but love? No idea. It was terrifying just trying to even get home.
This could have been a speech for THE PRESENT's Mikhail Platonov, who it seemed to be "so good at passion but no idea about love."

This production played to packed houses. The stellar line up of actors a bankable draw card, that, mostly, did not let us down. It was fun - if not, also, moving.

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