January 8 marked the first opening of 2017 with Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Present, an adaptation by Andrew Upton of Anton Chekhov’s earliest work. Two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett makes her Broadway debut, along with the rest of the cast, as Anna Petrovna, who is celebrating her 40th birthday with a weekend-long gathering of her closest friends. That includes Mikhail Platonov, played by Richard Roxburgh, a lethario with whom, well, it’s complicated. As in other Chekhov, the play explores the contradictions and complications of life and its meaning, and how we can overemphasize the past and future in sacrifice of the present.
The transfer of the production marks the Broadway debut for all 13 regular cast members and the first time a production has transferred from Australia to Broadway. (Blanchett and Roxburgh transferred their production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to the Lincoln Center Festival in 2012.)
“It’s like the thing grows in your mind even though we haven’t done it for a year,” said Marshall Napier (6:00). David Downer (9:30) visited and mentioned that he “thought we were just going to remount what we did in Sydney, … but [director] John Crowley is the most perspicacious and assiduous director and pulled more and more out of it, and I didn’t think there was more to be pulled out of it.”
“Most people think of Chekhov as long and looking out the window and saying ‘Moscow, Moscow’ ... but I think this version is closer to what Chekhov would have wanted,” said Downer. “He actually wrote his plays to be appreciated as comedies as much as anything else.”
On the topic of working with Blanchett and Roxburgh, Downer said, “You can’t get better than those two. They both work incredibly hard. You don’t achieve their level of performances just by being talented or intelligent—which they are—but by an extraordinary level of hard work.”
Brandon McClelland (15:15), one of the youngest members of the cast, spoke about what Broadway means to Australian actors. “I felt very proud tonight of all of us of all the work we’ve done over the last almost two years. Just to be here on Broadway, it’s insane,” he said. “I think it’s more a feeling of ’OMG, wouldn’t it be great,’ but everyone quietly resigns themselves to ‘It’s never gonna happen.’”
As for young actors looking to approach Chekhov, McClelland advised, “Bring what you always would bring to any show: bring you. Don’t ever bring this idea of ‘the character,’ particularly with Chekhov and the great writers, it really demands of you something personal.”
Martin Jacobs (18:15) and his whole family joined the livestream to talk about his performance and working with Blanchett. “She’s always, always willing to rehearse and make it better, and she never behaves like a star,” he said. “She’s pretty special.” Toby Schmitz (21:30) plays the opening scene with Blanchett, opposite her in a literal chess match. “I always live in fear that there’s someone at the back, wearing opera glasses who is some sort of chess master,” he said. “So we know that we had to make it an authentic game of chess. … Cate and I got a little competitive some nights where we’ve forgotten about the play and gotten a little more involved in the match.”
Many Facebook viewers wondered about the difference between Australian and American audiences. “You really respond in the moment,” Eamon Farren (27:15) said of American audiences. Napier said earlier, “I think Australia has only recently come on the radar probably largely because Cate and Andrew have started bringing productions over here. … American audiences tend to be more demonstrative.”
Chris Ryan (31:00) joked with us about his routine before walking onstage each night, but loves the character he plays once he’s under the lights: “He’s really fun. … Lovelorn, nothing ever works out for him and then there’s a self-dramatizing thing to him.”
Star Richard Roxburgh joined the livestream (42:40), talking about bringing this play over from Sydney: “It’s especially great this time because it’s a new work, and it’s a work we all really love.” One of the more talked-about moments in the show is bound to be Act III, in which Roxburgh remains onstage, drunk center stage, seated in a chair dealing with his character’s demons. “It was very scary. Your first instinct as an actor it to try and make stuff interesting, right? I was out there, and it’s a man drunk and basically a revolving door of women come onto the stage and have scenes with me. So, I was trying to make it interesting and standing up and doing scenes, and John, our director, said, ‘No, no, sit down in the chair. All he wants to do is sit and drink.’ … I thought that was going to be so boring and he said, ‘Trust me, just do it.’ And it was an incredible act of faith.”
We spoke to the ladies of Platonov’s heart, Sasha, Maria, and Sophie, played by Susan Prior (51:00), Anna Bamford (52:30), and Jacqueline McKenzie (54:30), respectively. Prior talked about how the show infiltrates her life offstage. “Because some of the girls in the play are after my husband, sometimes I won’t talk to them before the show,” said Prior. When asked why her character, Sophie, is so taken with Mikhail, McKenzie stated the obvious: “Oh, look at him for God’s sake!”
Finally, the woman of the hour, Blanchett, joined us on camera with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton (1:10:00). “It’s sort of effortless really. He’s so true and so present, no pun intended, that it’s just about being there with him. As you do with every actor, you just respond to what’s going on. But he’s an incredible stage actor, and if I could do every role onstage with Richard, I would.”
As for Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work, he spoke about how he approached the writing. “This is a different Chekhov to a normal Chekhov in that it was written when he was 21-year-old, so the plays of his that are from the late period you don’t need to do anything, you just need to do the play,” he said. “This was a mess, it was a series of sketches really. So there was a freedom in it.”
The Present starring Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh plays through March 15 at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.