Anyone who suggested to Irish director John Crowley that he would one day be directing Anton Chekhov would have been dubbed a liar. “I wouldn’t have said five years ago that I’d have interest in directing any Chekhov, really,” he says.
Then Andrew Upton, at the time the artistic director of Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, emailed Crowley with a proposal: He was writing an adaptation of Chekhov’s first play Platonov, but set in the 1990s. And there would be punk music involved. Would Crowley direct?
“Andrew’s approach felt like a really interesting way to shine a different light on certain aspects that are in the original play,” says Crowley, “and to see what happens if one generation, which should step up and inherit the mantle of power, doesn’t.”
That idea became The Present, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Tony nominee Crowley (The Pillowman) leading the critically acclaimed 2015 Sydney production’s original cast of 13—including stars Richard Roxburgh and Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. During a weekend at a Russian country estate, Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) celebrates her 40th birthday with a group of longtime friends while over many, many bottles of vodka, they reminisce about the past and examine the unsatisfying turns their lives have taken.
Speaking over the phone during a lunch break on the first day of rehearsal, Crowley says the familiarity between the cast has only improved The Present. “It’s a whole different thing to revisit a play,” he says, “especially something like Chekhov that can take endless reexamination, which benefits from actors spending a lot of time playing it, and then going away from it, and then coming back to it. I think the depths of the relationship in the play take on a different dimension.”
And it’s funny, too. If that doesn’t sound very Chekhovian, think again. “I think that Chekhov is very funny and I don’t think he’s always allowed to be or given the freedom to be,” says Crowley. “Andrew would say he was releasing what was already in there.”
When asked how he made the usually regal Blanchett funny, Crowley maintains that it wasn’t difficult at all. “She’s a complete clown,” he exclaims. “If you ever wanted to see her dancing on a tabletop to some Euro-pop, you’re gonna have your dreams come true.”