STC’s Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and co scale Chekhov’s heights

In 1984, veteran Chekhov thespian Ian McKellen observed “actors climb up ­Chekhov like a mountain, roped together, sharing the glory if they ever make it to the summit”. Harnessing the brilliance of the Russian master playwright depended heavily, in his view, on perfect onstage teamwork. “Only when every part — each lazy valet, each stoical nanny, each gypsy violinist — has been ­perfectly cast, costumed and acted can the whole play be fully realised.”

It’s a view that finds a home with Richard Roxburgh, sandwiched between co-stars Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz and contemplating a hearty pot pie lunch at the Wharf in Sydney Theatre Company’s headquarters in The Rocks. The trio look a touch weary; they’ve gone a few rounds with the master, evidently, in the rehearsal room this morning. Lagers are requested, hearty comfort-food orders placed.

It’s week four of rehearsals for The Present, STC director Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s little-known first play Platonov, and the 13-strong cast has been busy clawing up the mountain under Irish director John Crowley’s sharp eye. McKellen is right, says Roxburgh, knitting together long fingers to illustrate. “On the first day, we’ve found that all these characters are so tightly interwoven, with such long relationships and histories, that if one tips back everyone falls.”

Schmitz says there has been a great collegial energy present as the cast tackles the demands posed by the Russian playwright: Chekhov, “like that other great anachronistic modernist, Shakespeare, keeps everyone on their toes”. Cate Blanchett, for one. Playing the central role of a charismatic aristocrat opposite Roxburgh in their first reunion since the international tours of Upton’s celebrated 2010 adaptation of Uncle Vanya, she reportedly is finding Chekhov “excruciating” to rehearse because there’s nothing to hide behind. Roxburgh says, “It’s not really the Chekhov, it’s because Cate suffers the demons and torments of the rehearsal room. It’s part of her excellence.”

Ryan (cyrano de Bergerac, Children of the Sun) is the only one of the trio to have done ­Platonov before, playing Nikolai in Simon Stone’s celebrated, waterlogged production for Hayloft Theatre in 2008. Roxburgh turns to Ryan: “You were in water, weren’t you?” Ryan nods. “Simon had hired a warehouse in the western suburbs of Melbourne and it was a rotting mansion and we were knee-deep in water for the whole thing.” Roxburgh asks if they were barefoot. “No, we had these kind of booties so we didn’t slip over. Everyone got drenched every night, the whole place stunk. People were getting very sick.”

No such occupational hazards exist in this new staging of an early work McKellen ­described as a “rambling, unfinished, unperformed play in a first draft”. Unlike Vanya, The Cherry Orchard or any of Upton’s previous Russian literary adaptations, Platonov poses its own peculiar dramaturgical challenges. A loose, baggy, chaotically fragmented work that would run to more than five hours if played in full (it ran to 134 pages in the original manuscript), it’s ­believed Chekhov wrote it as a young medical student in the 1880s for an actress at the Maly Theatre. It was returned without comment, and the despondent Chekhov chucked it in his sock drawer before it was unearthed in a Moscow bank vault in 1920, 16 years after his death. Missing its title page, it has been performed variously as Platonov, The Disinherited and Fatherlessness, among other titles. McKellen scored an Olivier gong for his turn in Michael Frayn’s 1984 ­adaptation, Wild Honey; David Hare also had a go at it in 2001.

Chekhov set the play in a summer country house where a group of privileged young friends, led by Mikhail Platonov (played by Roxburgh), a disillusioned country teacher mired in a complex web of sexual relationships, gathers for the birthday party of aristocratic widow Anna Petrovna (Blanchett). For all its flaws, it’s an intriguing blueprint for the great leitmotifs of Chekhov’s later, vodka-soaked masterpieces — lost, potentially great men who fail to carpe diem, thwarted desires and misdirected lust, the tragicomic absurdities of middle-class life. As Maxim Gorky observed, “Nobody understood so clearly and keenly as Anton Chekhov the tragedy of life’s banalities, nobody before him could with such merciless truth-­telling depict for people the shameful and painful picture of their life in the dreary chaos of petty bourgeois prosiness.”

For Roxburgh, it is Chekhov’s understanding of humanity that “makes his writing so singular and so ahead of its time. It’s so detailed and full of the nature of life and experience. He was a great studier of humanity, like Shakespeare.”

In Upton’s adaptation, his last work for the STC before he exits as artistic director at the end of the year, action is compressed into 24 hours across the course of Anna’s 40th birthday, and set in a volatile 1990s ­perestroika Russia where former KGB officers, oligarchs, the impoverished landed gentry and gangsters (“There’s this sense of very rich, very powerful, very frightening guys,” says Roxburgh) mix socially. Upton has made them ­middle-aged, which, says Roxburgh, “provides this thread of terrible regret which adds a whole other really beautiful layer. It maybe speaks to what Chekhov might have done with the work if he had finally pulled it out of the sock drawer later in life.” Upton has done a brilliant job in sharpening and filleting the work, he says. “There is enough of Chekhov’s themes and preoccupations in life there, perhaps a surfeit of it, so it’s really good picking grounds.”

Roxburgh describes Platonov as an impotent but still seductive force in his 40s (“he was ­pretty extraordinary in his younger days, with a brilliant wit, he illuminated a room”), married to the devoted Sasha (Susan Prior) but long embroiled in a complex, unconsummated relationship with Blanchett’s Anna, who, he says, “likes the human game, she likes to set the structure of the room, she sets this person with that person, but she herself is terribly lost, which we gradually discover. There’s this beautiful ancient history between Anna and Platonov. They’re two people who are intellectually connected but who cannot take that leap.”

Ryan plays Sergei, Anna’s stepson and a former student of Platonov, now newly married to idealistic young doctor Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie) while Schmitz plays the Peter Pan-ish Nikolai, who is contemplating marriage to clever student girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford). Platonov and Anna are idolised in different combinations by these two young couples. The glue that holds things together are nostalgic memories of “wonderful and sexy and magical golden Russian summers”, says Schmitz. Roxburgh says: “When we meet Platonov, he feels a sense of opportunities squandered and he’s trying to piece together how and why it happened. Obviously in unpacking that there’s fantastic opportunities with all these characters with whom he has all these old untangled relationships, to experience a great deal of regret. I’m probably making it sound too sombre, though — it’s also hilarious.” McKellen, incidentally, saw Platonov as a comic character. It’s an approach that got him in trouble during Wild Honey’s US tour, which drew moral disapproval over Platonov’s alcoholism supposedly “being played for laughs”.

Roxburgh says it is this delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, played out in subtle undercurrents below the frothy, trivial surface dialogue, that makes Chekhov so ahead of his time. You have to come armed to act between the lines, grab the moments between the peaks, says Schmitz. Roxburgh says Chekhov used “those famous Chekhovian pauses and silences … like a composer does to orchestrate music”. Upton has stayed true to this with his “incredibly musical work. If you skip something when you try to learn it, and it’s not working, you then go back into this script and you go, oh, that’s why. I don’t know how Andrew’s done it, but I think the music in the writing is incredible … this script, honestly, and I say this so very seldomly about a new work, was so bloody good there’s only been a few words changed here and there since the first rehearsal.”

Chekhov wrote Platonov towards the end of the 19th century in the lead-up to the revolution. Roxburgh says Upton’s updating of the setting to 1990s Russia provides a similar sense of a society in dangerous flux. Was Chekhov a pessimist or optimist? All three plump for the latter. Running through his depictions of lost souls and fragmenting societies is a frustrated sense of how much better things could be if only people took action. For Chekhov, work had intrinsic moral value; as Gorky noted, “I have never known a man feel the importance of work as the foundation of all culture” as deeply as the playwright.

Roxburgh says, “I think it would have been very hard to be a person with the size of Chekhov’s brain and heart and to live in that period of Russia and not have an incredible frustration over the circumstances people are in and how they’ve been cowed by their own history. Platonov talks about that in the play — how they’ve never had decent rulers, and they’ve never had a proper conversation about how to run this place, and so they’ve ended up with all these despots and tsars and then Stalin. So for somebody like Chekhov, there’s a bitter ­element to his work, but I think it’s just that he sees so very clearly.”

Blanchett has mentioned taking the play to the US and London this year, but Roxburgh says: “It’s kind of early days, we will have to see how that pans out, and people’s availability as well, it’s always a nightmare.

“But it would be great to do it again. There’s a whole lot of people in it for the right reasons, writer and director included.”

The Present opens tonight at Sydney Theatre Company.

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What a privileged , smug little being Blanchette is and it's all thanks to Whitlam apparently !