Q & A: Andrew Upton’s Greatest Gift of All

The playwright opens up about The Present, his new adaptation of Chekhov’s sprawling early play, which heads to Broadway this month starring Academy Award–winner (and Upton’s wife) Cate Blanchett.

‘Tis the season of Anton Chekhov on Broadway. As the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard (starring Diane Lane) closes, it hands the baton to the Sydney Theatre Company, whose star-studded production of The Present—an adaptation of Chekhov’s untitled early play (known as Platonov)—begins previews on December 17 at the Barrymore Theatre. (The play first premiered in Sydney last year.)

In The Present, Australian playwright Andrew Upton hones the sprawling, roughly 300-page Platonov into a measured exploration of nostalgia, aging, and desire. Set over 24 hours at a dacha outside post-perestroika Moscow, the action focuses on a group of family and friends who reunite for the birthday party of the 40-year-old widow Anna Petrovna, played by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. Though the play features a vibrant ensemble cast, the electricity between Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh (as the playboy schoolteacher Mikhail Platonov) takes center stage.

Upton and his female lead have a long history of collaboration: In addition to being married for nearly 20 years, Blanchett and Upton were co-artistic directors of the STC from 2008-2013 (Upton held the position solo from 2013-2015), and Blanchett starred as Yelena in the company’s lauded 2012 production of Uncle Vanya at New York’s City Center. Upton adapted the production; Roxburgh also starred opposite Blanchett. Joining them this time is Irish stage and screen director John Crowley (FOX Searchlight’s Brooklyn).

We spoke with Upton over the phone about the challenges and rewards of adapting Chekhov, the palpable chemistry between Blanchett and Roxburgh, and why this production from 100 years ago resonates now more than ever in the United States.

Why did you choose to adapt Platonov now?
Well, it sort of picked me! I was working very closely for a long time with [director] Howard Davies, who recently passed away. He and I did a lot of work at the National Theatre in London. We did The Cherry Orchard in Australia, and The Cherry Orchard in London … we were very interested in that period, and the next thing we were going to do was Platonov! But then the National changed [hands], so that project kind of fell by the wayside.

So you picked it up again at the Sydney Theatre Company.
Yes. I thought, I’ve done the reading around it, but I’ve not done any of the adaptation yet—I think I might rework it, really very much around Richard [Roxburgh] and Cate [Blanchett]. I’d seen them work together beautifully on a number of occasions, and specifically for the STC in Uncle Vanya. I thought, I’m going to rework this for them and I’m going to modernize it, which I would never have done with Howard [Davies]. So that kind of gave me a way into it.

Reviewers have reacted positively to the dynamic between Blanchett and Roxburgh. What do you think is special about their chemistry?
I think there’s a very strong talent quotient there. Just a raw, natural facility to be actors. They’ve got good voices, they’ve got good timing, they’re graceful onstage. They lead, they follow, they listen … and on top of that, they’ve known each other for a very long time. And on top of that, Cate has a kind of status—that obviously she fully deserves—that can get in the way for other actors, but doesn’t get in the way with Richard. I’m not saying she swans around—that’s not it at all—but sometimes there’s a cowing effect. It doesn’t always happen, but it can. [Cate and Richard], when they get together, they’re like old friends, like old family. They know each other kind of inside out, so they just act. And because they can act, it’s great.


Courtesy Sydney Theatre Company

The characters in The Present are dealing with their pasts constantly. How do you think about the play’s relationship to this idea of living in the moment?
The play has an ambivalent relationship to that sort of “pop” idea of living in the moment—the “follow your heart, follow your nose, follow your impulse.” But there’s also this post-punk nostalgia. There are quite a few Clash songs, in the curtain call and scene changes. There’s a sense that maybe Platonov and Sergei and Nikolai—when they were 20, and very privileged Soviet boys—had access to this sort of Western music and vented their frustration at being both privileged and part of a society that they hated. There’s a little of that [feeling] in the text, but I think once John and I carved that out—John really pursued it beautifully in the production—I think it sits quite strongly in the sense that the whole punk aesthetic was very DIY, live in the moment, follow your heart … but it can also lead to dead-end life choices. I think that [notion is] inside the title of The Present. And I think the idea that even though Platonov is a play written 100 years ago and The Present is set 20 years ago, it still talks to this present.

Why did you set your adaptation in the 1990s?
There’s this kind of indulgence of the super-rich, which is how we characterize the Russian oligarchs. But really, the super-rich are all over the world at the moment, and [there’s a] sort of disgraceful indulgence that that represents. There’s nothing as grand as despair. Apathetic despair.

I would never pass judgment on my characters, but inside that Platonov story, I found a deep sort of torpor, which I think comes from [the characters] not knowing how to affect any real change in their lives. They’re kind of scared to change something, because if they change it, they might lose their big bucks. This isn’t so apparent in Chekhov’s later works. I think he probably became more attuned to the sort of sorrow and anxiety inside that class as he aged … but this young man’s view was quite interesting.

Gearing up for the play’s New York debut—and given the current political climate in the United States—are there any passages from The Present that resonate with you in a different way than they did before?
I suppose the whole indulgence of Act II [in which multiple characters profess love and drink heavily]. Act II is probably the most heavily adapted part of the play. It’s a complete invention, really. The characters just follow their nose and follow their heart, but not in a noble way—in a kind of impulsive way. It’s funny, I think, but it’s a despairing kind of image, as well. What happened in [the production in] Australia was the audience went with the humor, which is great, but there’s a real bitterness that I hope gets sharpened out after revisiting it, and revisiting it at this time.

The running time of Platonov is approximately six hours. How did you hone the story you wanted to tell in The Present?
There are actually a number of storylines in Platonov. A lot of them [deal with] generational change or generational anxiety, which I think is what the play is essentially about … But the Anna Petrovna story was the one that was super interesting to me: This idea of a woman who’d been taken out of her generation. In the backstory to The Present, you’ve got this post-Stalin general, who has probably found [the young Anna]—a 19-year-old girl—and snapped her up, took her away from her family, and deposited her in a society with very elite family groups. And lo and behold, she’s two years older than his son [Sergei], who has friends that are basically her age. And, of course, they all fall in love with her.

I kind of liked this idea that [in the play’s present day], Anna was just at the tail end of what you would call her striking sexual capacity life—as were all the boys, now—and none of them had resolved what they actually felt about each other 20 years earlier. So, in the end, I respun the whole [Platonov] story around this central dynamic with Anna Petrovna, which was not the central dynamic of Chekhov’s original material.


Courtesy Sydney Theatre Company

Where does The Present adhere to Chekhov the most?
I’m really proud of this—I hope I don’t sound sort of cocky—but I think the adaptation is better than the originating work. I don’t think it’s necessarily anywhere near as good as one of the great Chekhov plays, but I think why it’s better is because I worked on The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. I think there’s an incredibly even distribution of character presence on stage and the storylines all come to fruition … so the audience isn’t watching one star [at] each turn … some people have ten little lines, but you can see a kind of life there. I think that’s very much a late Chekhov characteristic, and I feel like I brought that to this adaptation.

Where does The Present differ from Chekhov the most?
I think being bold enough to make it about Platonov’s immediate dilemma, and the ramifications of how he got there … and sort of sticking him in the middle of the stage, and bringing everyone on in almost an abstract way. It’s clearly not what happened that night. It’s kind of what it felt like in his psychic brain. One of the things I thought of when I started watching [the production] was Shakespeare’s Richard III—that scene where Richard III is visited by a ghost of a man that he’s killed, before he goes into that final battle. Shakespeare draws on this in a number of places. You either can have a ghost, or you can have a real person and the actor standing next to them can be a ghost … I love that you can have that in theater. Not to say that there’s a ghost [in The Present], but I hope it’s drawing on that kind of tradition.

In addition to The Present, you’ve adapted two of Chekhov’s four major plays (Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard). What is it about Chekhov that interests you?
If Chekhov is not the greatest playwright, he’s really running a very close second to Shakespeare. It’s something to do with his impeccable structure and theatrical conviction of time and space and character dynamic and direction—particularly by the time you get to The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. It’s so alluring to me as a writer, to sit with that and learn from it. Also, an adaptation is a very different thing than a translation. A translation is an important act of academia; an adaptation is really an act of theater. And it’s very production-specific. That’s why [adaptations] don’t last very long. They’re strangely more ephemeral, I think, than the works themselves. [Adapting a work gives a writer] the chance to wrestle and work out how it’s going to stay alive in the audience’s ear, how the actors are going to keep it alive.

Chekhov was a very young writer when he wrote Platonov. It’s clearly a rough draft. I’ve cut stuff out, or reconstituted scenes to get more out of the drama for our purposes. But I would never do that with Vanya or The Cherry Orchard.

Do you read Russian?
Nope.

What is your translation process like?
What I do every time is get a very, very literal translation. I don’t want you to tell me what the grammar is. I want you to write it down ungrammatically. I’ll work out the tense. I’ll work out the syntax. I want the words that the writer chose to use. It’s a very slow process; they’re huge documents. You’ve got to know the play relatively well, or else you’ll read it and go, “What the fuck is that?”

When we did Uncle Vanya, I got this Russian actor I know in Melbourne, called Alex Menglet. He came up for a week, and he sat opposite me and he read [Vanya] to me in Russian, and he translated. Every. Single. Word. And I just wrote a very rough version down, and then he went back home and I continued working on it.

Do you have a favorite translator when it comes to Chekhov?
When it comes to Chekhov, gosh! I really try to avoid other people’s work, to be honest. It’s too dangerous. You have to assume that everyone else does their own work. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but I don’t go near it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

 

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