Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
10 August, 2015

Life is but a series of choices. Some are made for love, others greed. Some are made for desire, while others are made in desperation. The choices we make, and the reasons we make them exist in a single moment, in the present, but once those actions are cast, like stones into the pool of our existence, the ripples they create travel out through our lives, as unstoppable, unchangeable consequences. This may be a fundamental truth that flows through the veins of all theatre, but in the words of playwright and Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company Andrew Upton, “theatre is the music of reality, orchestrated and composed, scored in time and space.” In his masterfully adapted version of Chekhov’s first, flawed, unnamed and almost forgotten play, Upton has taken this obscure work and given it a familiar tune, to create an eloquent microcosm of the universal tensions that we all battle and struggle with. It is both a glorious ode to Chekhov and yet unmistakably Upton’s.

This may sound like a work of profundity on an intimidatingly earnest scale, but The Present tempers its deep undercurrent with a foreground of flippancy and the mundane. Gathered together for her 40th birthday party, Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett) invites an uncomfortably mismatched collection of characters to join her at her summer home in the country for the weekend. Their collective lives are tangled in a complex knot of connections. Some are lifelong friends, while others share romantic history, and some are merely guests caught in the crossfire. Political beliefs, unrequited sexual tensions, personality clashes and generational divides simmer dangerously beneath a veneer of social etiquette until, with the help of countless bottles of vodka, the cracks open up, releasing a turbulent melee of love, loss and longing.

Upton is an ardent Russophile, with a string of successes directing and adapting the great monuments of Russian theatrical literature both in Australia and overseas. Given his experience and overt admiration for Russia’s plays, it’s unsurprising that Upton’s adaptation of this problematic text has managed to prune Chekhov’s narrative with effortless sensitivity while preserving the emotional and psychological essence of the source material. The artistic license Upton takes with the specifics of the action, such as transplanting the play into a more contemporary, late 20th Century context and infusing the dialogue with charismatic Australian colloquialisms, serves only to unveil these characters as relatable, recognisable figures, rather than culturally and historically distant artefacts. Tragedy and comedy are close companions in this play, thanks to Upton’s singular wit and the superb delivery of the cast. However because of Upton’s willingness to push the action as close to farce as possible, the overarching anguish in the broad strokes of this narrative never becomes overwhelming. This is the funniest play about regret you’ll ever see.

Headlining a cast with Hollywood A-listers is inevitably a gift for drawing punters to a show, but Sydney audiences should also count themselves extremely blessed to have actors of the calibre of Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh willing to dedicate themselves to live theatre. Together Blanchett and Roxburgh’s rapport on stage, developed through years of working together at STC, is transfixing. Both navigate the rapidly changing narrative terrain, leaping from zinging comedy to gut-punching pathos, with astonishing athleticism, but this production is far more than just a two-hander. The Present thrives on the complexity of many intermingled lives and thus is a true ensemble effort. The 13 strong cast have worked hard, with director John Crowley, to weave in the nuances and imperfections of every day speech. People talk over each other, words are stuttered and tripped over: it creates a hugely absorbing sense of authenticity to the text that holds a mirror up to our own ways of communicating. The different personas in this complex web are all skillfully realised – particular praise must go to Jacqueline McKenzie’s Sophia, full of moral outrage and desperate frustration, and Martin Jacobs’ Alexei, groping for his youth but clinging pathetically to the past – however with stars that burn as brightly as Blanchett and Roxburgh, some of the performances from the less experienced cast members occassionally fall short of these stratospheric standards.

This production is a swansong for both Blanchett and Upton and at the end of this season the rumour is that they will relocate. These two great lights of Australian theatre have offered not just a cherished history of theatrical triumphs over the past seven years since becoming joint Artistic Directors of STC in 2008, but also a legacy for Sydney as a destination for world-class theatre. With a tenure that has been bejeweled with accomplishments, The Present, unriddling a neglected work by one of his favourite playwrights, delivered with spectacular ability by his wife and friends, and staged as his final opus for his company, is surely a parting gesture Upton must be hugely proud of.

Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until September 19.