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A Platypus in New York City, by Marcus Breen

Sydney Theatre Company does Chekhov in NYC

‘Remember’, wrote Peter Carey in his 2003 novel My Life as a Fake, ‘this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways’. Well, yes, of course ‘things’ are bound to ‘develop’. But what does ‘interesting’ mean? The arrival on Broadway of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s unnamed and unpublished text as The Present is indeed ‘interesting’, in the way Peter Carey almost always suggests in his work: ‘interesting’ in that socially discounted way that reduces culture to its banalities while amplifying a kind of Antipodean inadequacy.

In its Broadway manifestation, The Present is ‘interesting’ in the way the platypus pushes the boundaries of comprehensibility for nature lovers from the northern hemisphere. Certainly, the STC version offers incomprehensibility, in a situation in which an otherwise unknown and unnamed Chekhov play operates as the starting point for the one comprehensible thing many Australians desire more than anything else: success in America.

The combination of the play’s uncertain provenance and its performance by Australians on Broadway, arguably the toughest theatre market in the world, offers what might be called the platypus principle. The equivalent of genetic modification, the platypus principle operates within the orbit of global debates about genetic meddling, in which the changes put at risk the original order of things. In this case, the STC takes The Present and remakes it despite the risks, in a kind of GMO-be-damned moment.

And yet there is an inevitability about this kind of risk taking. Playing on Broadway is the pinnacle of American theatrical achievement. Who can resist? Not Australians; perhaps not anyone.

As an Australian with twenty years’ US residency who has recently been naturalised, my observations of the behaviour of many of my countryfolk often leave me bemused—at certain times somewhat more sadly bemused, if not horrified. Australians’ ignorance about the processes of everyday life in the vastness of the United States is often palpable, misleading them into an abyss of self-deception about the value of their work and their contribution to the culture. Their belief that everything with an American stamp on it is superior to anything from their home country continues the ‘cultural cringe’, mobilised by a blind commitment to the myth of economic riches and the fame that attaches to wealth. Of course, such complaints are not limited to Australians, but they emerged with Antipodean panache in The Present.

For Australians and many others, Broadway’s appeal is in the realisation of America as an idea. To succeed globally in the theatre is to succeed in America. This Americanisation-as-globalisation has been variously criticised, most recently in the post-9/11 moment in which culture gave way to a limiting view of the world as described within mainstream American life. Academic Daniele Conversi referred to this in a 2010 article, ‘The Limits of Cultural Globalisation?’, as ‘global Americanisation’, a process in which a unidirectional set of cultural and corporate interests begin and end with and in the United States. As I have heard more than once from American visitors to Australia, they wonder at the domination of American content on Australian television and in the cinema, not to mention the prevalence of American food outlets and American games.

Broadway is no exception in the way it makes and values US culture as the one and only. In effect, Broadway reproduces culture with such overweening brand power that Americanisation is the only measure of what results. And yet to push the point of Americanisation too far would be to deny the poor old mixed-up platypus any value whatsoever.

As a hybrid in the ecosystem of Americanisation, the platypus principle is to be found among several contesting forces and The Present offers a case study of the way these forces work.

The first force is the text itself: Australians with an inferior sensibility might believe that anything by a recognised European master like Chekhov must be superior to something local.

After Chekhov allegedly drafted the play—his first, written when he was eighteen—it was left unpublished, a sure sign perhaps that it should be used for research purposes alone. When it was discovered after his death in 1920, it was something of a curiosity, as was Chekhov. According to Carl Nilsson-Polias, in notes provided in Playbook, the free brochure given out at the beginning of every Broadway production, by the time the Bolshevik Revolution arrived, Chekhov’s ‘star had lost his luster’. Among other things, Chekhov’s plays concentrated on the gentry and, adds Nilsson-Polias, after years of repetitive performances in the Moscow Art Theater, the plays had become ‘stagnant’. (That may have been a limited interpretation, given the plays’ poor-to-nonexistent contribution to revolutionary art.)

The Broadway performance of The Present continues the stagnancy, even as it trades on the name (these days referred to as ‘the brand’) of the Russian playwright, offering unconvincing insights into the life of garden-party society. It is hardly a startling story, although these days the force of ‘brand power’ is intended to override the questionable quality of the material.

The play begins with Anna (Cate Blanchett) concerned about her fortieth-birthday celebration at her country home, left to her by her late husband, who was a general in the Russian army. She struggles to keep her attention on the party plans as various friends, possible future husbands and well-connected Russians arrive for the celebrations. Each of the characters has a link to Anna, who married the general twenty years ago. Her stepson, Sergei, and his friend Nikolai enjoyed the friendship of their tutor Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh), and all of them attend the country house. Mikhail’s voluminous personality occupies all the space he enters, even though in middle age he has turned into little more than a shadow of his youthful potential.

As the thirteen characters navigate their way through past relationships and present aspirations, the drama centres on the recollections of these privileged Russians, for whom life consists of little-to-no contribution to Russian social development. The exception is Mikhail, in relation to whom Anna appears as a friend and possibly a former lover, while her frustration with widowhood and social uncertainty takes a dramatic turn when she blows up the summer house. Anna then nurses Mikhail as he dies in her arms after he is shot by one of the female guests, who in the course of events becomes a jilted lover.

As the moral centre of the play, Mikhail struggles to make sense of the state of things in post-perestroika Russia, the time in which the story has been set in Andrew Upton’s adaptation.

All these elements make for a story driven by unwieldy personalities. Indeed, Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work offers an opportunity to explore why such an uninspiring piece of theatre should make its way from Sydney to New York, much less from Russian obscurity to Broadway. The answer is in political economy, the second, although not the least, of the forces at work in the cultural ecosystem.

Almost every instance of cultural production is the result of human interests intersecting with finance, where finance is a kind of code for the manipulative orchestrations of contemporary capital, without which it seems to be impossible to bring culture to the public. In this case, the prevailing human interest around which finance circulates is Cate Blanchett. Her name is like a lighthouse beacon to investors and audience members alike, operating as a safe harbour of known theatre and cinema talent. And with The Present—with its attendant risks, failure of intellectual heft and lack of challenge to any established moral matter of note—Blanchett offers the STC, Broadway investors and fans the certainty of the currency of celebrity.

Unsurprisingly, the shiny currency of Blanchett’s celebrity appeal was apparent in my own decision to travel from Boston to Manhattan with my partner to see the play—to see Cate Blanchett on stage, in real life. The enthusiastic applause from many audience members when the curtains opened to reveal Blanchett standing alone on stage was confirmation of the adulation for this outstanding actress, who as a celebrity provokes barely rational responses. Within this moment of unreflective adoration for the flesh and blood of Blanchett was a long trajectory of the energy of her presence. It is this human element of the political economic force that brought her to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 West 47th Street.

Such energy incorporates the seductive quality of celebrity within the culture, and theatre is no exception. Reviewing Blanchett in Jean Genet’s play The Maids in The New Yorker in August 2014, Hilton Als wrote that part of the explanation for the appeal of that play was the way the public is ‘in thrall to the machinery of culture—stars, sets and the like’.

The machinery at work in The Present is impossible to avoid, centering on Blanchett before spinning out into Als’ ‘and the like’. This is the political economy attached to her, as her star quality mobilises curiosity about her humanity and papers over the wheels of the machine.

And as the forces at work converge to impress upon the world the inevitability of Broadway-as-pinnacle, The Present offers a view of Americanisation in which almost anything goes within the structured machinery of production.

In the STC’s production, Chekhov’s second-rate text operates as the foundation for an Australianised adaptation. Pronunciations in Australian English dominate the performance, giving the play on the New York stage an exotic, textured feel, even while the global actors Blanchett and Roxburgh segue their cosmopolitan vocality towards upper-class English. Blanchett is especially transnational in this sense. Her drawn-out, even laconic vocal delivery moves air from her chest rather than from her throat, embodying the sensation of languid pleasure, as Roland Barthes might have suggested when considering ‘the grain of the voice’. In another register, her confident, ‘lowing’ utterances operate like that of a familiar cow gently mooing in verdant pasture, a creature everyone wants to touch, to feel and be reassured by, perhaps even love. Most certainly, the grain of this particular voice is pregnant with sexual possibility.

In contrast, the Australian accents of the cast provide the appeal of a different kind of ‘other’ for Broadway theatregoers, with many Americans insisting (to me at least) that they enjoy the Australian accent as an exotic experience of ‘difference’ that they happily consume.

These aural characteristics of The Present pale against the adaptation itself, which is a mishmash of Australianisms, jokes and vernacular set in the confines of a Russian country garden. For example, hearing one actor refer to another as ‘a dick’ may seem linguistically contemporary, even hip, while elsewhere one of the male cast identifying another’s sexual indiscretion by the ‘wet patch’ in his bed falls flat, embodying the incomprehensibility of the platypus principle. Would a Russian—or is it an Australian?—protest loudly among friends about a wet patch in his bed? As such, the contemporary nature of the political economy of Americanisation is that everything is anywhere and strangely nowhere, unhinged from local meaning and linguistic protocols. Actors with Australian accents appear in an Australian adaptation of a Russian play where the actors have Russian names, further confusing the meaning of a globalised world view. It is as if the exotic character of pre-Bolshevik Russia, combined with the Australian vernacular, contains cultural magic.

Attempting to claw some class meaning back, Upton sets the play in the context of the lives of people attached to privilege through ruling elites. Mikhail, for example, protests the emergence of the Russian oligarchs as well as his failure to join the ranks of these same people. As a teacher and former man-about-town, his life is diminished, while Anna’s appears to be on the rise. That she fails to find a well-connected older man in the cast—one dies, while the other learns of and rejects her scheme to marry him, thereby gaining access to lucrative mineral contracts on her property—is not so much a tragedy as an American fantasy. In that sense, this Broadway play fulfils a belief that has been globalised: that a barely contrived lucky break is the rule of success.

And Broadway loves this kind of narrative. Sadly, it seems so too do Australians, if the STC is anything to go by. Consistently studying then performing the fantastic lives of the rich and famous hardly amounts to a theatre worthy of the name. In fact, the theatrical reproduction of the lived experiences of parasites and their ill-gotten fortunes (the Russian oligarchs are easy targets) suggests how the machinery of the contemporary political economy is rendered. It is done by adapting a European/Russian theatrical ‘master’ like Chekhov in a contemporary Australian setting and using a celebrity to sell the result to enthusiasts who have bought into the American dream.

Little in the play directs the audience to the key questions of inequality, class and wealth. Instead, the forces at work are those of celebrity within the exotic world of the super-rich. Surely this is the prevailing critical complaint about Americanisation: that it is a unidirectional narrative whose central idea is the pursuit of the upper-class way of life.

This political-economic force gives rise to a style of derivative cultural production. In this case, Upton has a career defined by adaptations of Russian and European plays that, along with The Present, include Genet’s The Maids, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Molière’s Don Juan and so on. While it may be unfair to complain about a career of adaptation, the point remains that this kind of secondhand authorship lacks originality, even while it attempts to reconstruct the texts of the past with contemporary references.

Such work probably has its place, although it does not push the creative envelope, preferring instead to trade on the known while pretending to offer something new.

Finally, there is the ethics of power. As co-director of the STC, Upton has been able to offer Sydney audiences the classics from Europe as seen through his interpretive lens, partly, as is the nature of power, through his influence on the selection and scheduling of plays in Sydney.

Superficially there may be nothing wrong with the ‘boss’ deciding to display his own work or presenting a conservative agenda of adapted plays. However, from the perspective of critical political economy, adaptations trade in attracting investors and audiences to contemplate established theatre rather than providing the shocks or insight associated with an exploration of the issues of contemporary life, such as poverty, unemployment, corruption or global warming—all of which, as social and economic ills, can be traced to the excesses of global Americanisation. To build one’s career evading such pressing issues is to create a career apparently lacking in conscience that deserves no more than faint praise.

Then again, in presenting European adaptations in Sydney, Upton and the STC claim a licence to aim low on the creative and moral scale, not least because of the appeal to the European theatrical canon. Although Upton mentioned in The Present program notes the challenges facing post-perestroika Russia, his adaptation foregrounds the propensity of Australians to uncritically navigate what already exists rather than offer new Antipodean perspectives on ways of imagining and then creating social and economic life.

Unfortunately, like a cursed birth for an aristocrat—a condition with which Upton must by now be familiar—the major ethical issue for Upton is that he is Cate Blanchett’s husband. Nowhere was this point made in the Playbill program accompanying the Broadway run. Perhaps theatregoers don’t care? And yet, if this relationship did not exist, would The Present appear on Broadway?

This is the dead end of political economy: the bankable star in a forgettable play that makes it to Broadway for the wrong reasons. ‘Interesting’? Perhaps. But this is a global problem that undermines theatre and, more generally, the potential for creative productions to remake public consciousness about the issues of the day while reimagining culture. As such, the work that results is much less interesting than the platypus.

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