The young Anton Chekhov, already attracting attention as a writer of humorous newspaper columns, made his first attempt to write a full-length play around 1878. When Maria Yermolova, the star actress for whom he’d written it, turned it down, he stowed it away, still in its rough-draft form, and forgot about it. When it was dug up and published in 1923, nearly two decades after his death, it lacked a title page, so nobody knew what to call it. Over the decades, it’s appeared in English as That Worthless Fellow Platonov, Don Juan in the Russian Manner, A Country Scandal, Sons Without Fathers, and Wild Honey. Andrew Upton’s new adaptation, now being played on Broadway by Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company, is titled The Present. Despite Blanchett’s presence, the work is no gift. Yermolova was right.
The simple truth about Platonov, as Chekhov scholars and critics generally refer to it, is that, like many great playwrights’ first attempts, it’s an unwieldy mess, of interest to scholars and maybe a small group of theater aficionados because it contains so many brief glimpses of the Chekhov to come, including dry runs for characters and situations that turn up later in his four masterpieces. But the young Chekhov who wrote Platonov — he seems to have been only eighteen — had not yet evolved the complex, watchmaker-precise technique by which he integrated characters and events into a unified work. Platonov is a chaos of duplicated situations and nervously repeated emotional outbursts that leads nowhere, and never seems to achieve any focus. In that respect it resembles another rarely produced play, Henrik Ibsen’s The League of Youth, which was written before the twelve “domestic plays” that cemented Ibsen’s reputation, and seems like a tryout for many of their characters. Playwriting is a sorting process; the more innovative the playwright’s method, the more time and effort it takes to sort out.
Upton’s adaptation adds a further layer of confusion by transposing Chekhov’s action to the 1990s, just after the Soviet Union’s collapse and its replacement by the gangster-capitalist Russia that today takes such an interest in our election process. So the relationships remain those, familiar from other Chekhov plays, of the landed gentry and their satellites, while the diction and manners are apparently intended to be those of modern Russians newly liberated from the Soviet era. I say “apparently” because Upton doesn’t do this very well: The people onstage behave very much like the trashier affluent citizens of an Anglophone country — America, Britain, Australia — to whom privilege and free speech are matters of everyday habit. None of them seems to carry any mental scars left over from the constant burden that life in the USSR placed on its citizens. All they display are the customary Chekhovian griefs, for the expression of which Upton often lets them lapse, unwisely, into fervent Chekhovian speeches. Dropped bodily in from his source play, they sound little like the rest of the text, and still less like believable 1990s conversation, even on a Russian country estate. Since all educated Russians have Chekhov’s most famous passages drilled into them, it’s glaring that none of the characters notice these intrusions; I kept waiting for someone onstage to shout, “Stop talking like a goddam Chekhov play!”
Upton’s title, which is a pun — the action takes place on the heroine’s fortieth birthday — joins its predecessors in suggesting one key reason that Yermolova was right to reject Platonov: Its female lead, Anna (Blanchett), is not its central figure. This is Chekhov’s raw, clumsy first attempt at the form he would bring to masterly fulfillment with The Seagull and its three successors: the panoramic play, deploying an ensemble of diverse characters to depict a society in the process of change. If anything, in this play and the somewhat less muddled work that followed it a decade later, Ivanov (1887), the central figure is male.
Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), the local schoolmaster, is the first of several Chekhov characters who will echo Hamlet in their sense of self-doubt and purposelessness. Despite these feelings, the middle-aged Platonov, married and the father of a new baby, is a will-less, topsy-turvy Don Juan at whom all the local ladies fling themselves. Anna, newly widowed by a wealthy and much older general, is the leader of the pack, which also includes idealistic Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), recently married to Platonov’s friend Sergei (Chris Ryan), and the much-younger, serious-minded Maria (Anna Bamford), who’s involved with Platonov’s friend Nikolai (Toby Schmitz). These overlapping situations, along with several subplots, crowd in on Platonov till they finally cause his death. (Upton handles the denouement somewhat differently from earlier versions.)
It all sounds like a Chekhov script messed up by some kid, the startling point being that the kid was Chekhov himself. For those with a literary bent, the play’s limited pleasure lies in the periodic jumps you get when antecedents of mature Chekhov works suddenly rise out of this shrill and jumbled text. Director John Crowley doesn’t help matters by making much of the action louder, shriller, and more aggressively jumbled together. The Sydney Theatre Company’s actors do well, on the whole, at sustaining their roles despite these directorial lurches into frenzy or overstatement. Roxburgh makes a touchingly sodden, hapless Platonov; McKenzie and Ryan are movingly ill-matched in their conflicting hopefulnesses; and Martin Jacobs has fun with some old-style Chekhovian grandstanding as one of Anna’s elderly suitors.
Plus, of course, there’s Blanchett. She, too, falls prey to the production’s temptation toward excess — abetted by the fact that Upton, as a way of strengthening the role, has given Anna a harsher and more assertive tone than in earlier versions. Blanchett’s skill and her charisma make it all seem viable in context; if only the context weren’t so very, very noisy, and so very full of arbitrary leaps and contradictions. Like previous adapters, Upton has not succeeded in turning Chekhov’s messy draft into a play. Chekhov himself, by letting it simmer a few decades and then turning it into four great plays, was certainly smarter.
Adapted by Andrew Upton
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Through March 19