For a long time, I’ve been an inveterate watcher of TV series not (or not yet) available in the States, partly out of cultural curiosity, partly because it’s a vicarious form of travel. We shall not in a public forum discuss the means by which this is accomplished, but it has afforded me some amazing opportunities leading to actual travel (stories for another time) and more importantly for our puroses here, introduction to some astonishing artists.
Tippy top on that list is a spectacular actor named Richard Roxburgh (pronounced ROCKS-burr-uh), first encountered by me as star of the exhilarating, eccentric comedy-drama Rake (original ongoing Australian version, not to be confused or blamed for the well-intentioned but misguided and short-lived American remake)—my favorite series in the seven years and four irregularly appearing seasons (of 8 eps each) of its existence. So to say I approached his live-on-Broadway appearance in The Present with some enthusiasm puts the caee quite mildly.
It does his excellent co-star Cate Blanchett and the supporting cast, not to mention the enterprise itself, a disservice to declare Mr. Roxburgh as the reason to attend, or alone worth the price of admission or any such encomium—for indeed, the whole of the experience is quite extraordinary—but I’ll defend my fanboy cheer to this extent, at least: he is every bit the dynamic force of nature he seems on the tube, in real life.
And of course it is his character, Platonov, for which the source play derives its adopted title. Adopted, because said play, an overlong first effort by Anton Chekhov, never produced in his lifetime, was also never formally titled by its author. It’s as sensible a title as any, though, because Platonov is indeed one of two characters around whom the play revolves. So why, then is Anton Chekhov’s adaptation, set in a more-or-less contemporary, post-Peristroika Russia, named The Present? Because the theme he’s chosen to emphasize (not an uncommon Chekhov thread), is the conflicts when arise among and within people who try to hold onto the past while navigating the here and now.
Platonov is a Chekhov archetype: once an aspiring writer who never achieved his potential, now a teacher, suppressing the feeling of failure. His contempt for status quo conventionalism is both righteous—which renegade roguishness makes him attractive to more women than he can handle, most of whom he uncontrollably seduces, as he resists the one he wants most of all—and unearned, because he is, after all, a sellout to his own convictions—which makes him as easily a threat to some men and a buddy-magnet to others, because the contradiction of his verbal facility and easy charisma makes him seem both better and worse than they are.
The second character at the center of the growing maelstrom is that one woman Platonov must resist, Anna Petrovna (Ms. Blanchett). The play begins on the occasion of her 40th birthday. She is ten years widowed, bored out of her skull, and desperate for a purpose beyond just languishing in her inheritance. Platonov and many others have gathered to celebrate at the old country house where they knew each other two decades before, each of them a troubled fulfillment of what they were or hoped to be. Also among the guests are much misspent passion, a pistol, a shotgun and a lot of booze. And you know Chekhov’s rule about not bringing anything onstage unless you intend to use it. And for all the heartache and sadness, it is also uproariously funny, which Chekhov always intended his plays to be, and which they rarely are, in English.
Under the direction of John Crowley, the play is magnificently acted by the stars and the rest of the ensemble in this production imported from the Sydney Theatre Company. And it’s scenically and visually always surprising, as each act of the four begins (sets and costumes: Alice Babidge).
Caveats? Well, one. Mr. Upton’s script, though it tracks and develops the relationships beautifully, seems less on target with its depiction of contemporary Russia. At any given moment, I wasn’t quite sure how contemporary we were; 1990s? Last year? This extends to the colloquial English as spoken by Australian actors; there’s a fluidity to it that’s unguarded in a Western World way, that doesn’t seem quite from the Eastern bloc. (What English would? Tom Stoppard managed it in Rock ‘n’ Roll. As did John Hodge in Collaborators. It’s far less about technique and idiom than sensibility, and at the moment I can’t quantify it more than that.) Why doesn’t it matter that much? Because at the same time, Upton’s script, with Crowley’ direction and Babidge’s, has at least convincingly given us an insular little world; one might almost describe it as a society subset never-never land. These folks may have ties to the outside world, but once they step over the threshold of property, they’re in a bubble where the outside world is incidental to what haunts them and binds them to each other. All of which appears to be quite intentional.
The play may be called The Present, but it’s one you’ll recall vividly in the future.