Cate Blanchett is making her Broadway debut in “The Present,” an adaptation, directed by John Crowley, of an early Chekhov play. For her, the production — now in previews for a Jan. 8 opening — brings to mind recent political upheavals, ranging from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump.
“You can’t present anything at the moment without thinking of the state the world is in,” she says in a rehearsal room in New York City. “We’re in a real state of” — Blanchett stops and thinks — “I was going to say ‘transition,’ but I think it’s more of a realization of what we’ve lost. We’ve lost the state of passivity, perhaps, that we’ve all been in, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are.”
When actors and creatives reunited in New York for a production first mounted in 2015 by the Sydney Theater Company, they discovered that “The Present” had taken on a notable resonance with, well, the present. The playwright Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband and the former artistic director of STC, has lifted the late 19th-century events of Chekhov’s early, ungainly play “Platonov” and set them in 1990s Russia, as the oligarchs rose to power at the end of the Soviet era.
“Hearing it all again, a year and a half after we first did it, you notice the feeling of powerlessness of the people in the face of the government,” Upton says. “There’s a kind of free-for-all going on that feels oddly familiar. That, and the disparity between the rich and the poor, is a very strong element inside the world of this play, and it’s speaking quite loudly at the moment.”
Although the production marks Blanchett’s first time on Broadway, the actress has always made time for the stage. With Upton, she was co-artistic director of the STC from 2008 to 2012, and some of her performances there were transferred to New York, including “Uncle Vanya” in 2012 and “The Maids,” opposite Isabelle Huppert, in 2014.
In “The Present,” she portrays the landowner Anna Petrovna, one of the women in love with disillusioned schoolmaster Mikhail Platonov, played by Richard Roxburgh. The two actors have worked together multiple times onstage, including in the New York “Vanya.”
“Because they’ve known each other and worked together on and off over the years,the depth of that relationship is available to them effortlessly,” says Crowley, a Broadway veteran who also directed the Oscar-nominated film “Brooklyn.” “They work very differently as actors. Rox is like an anchor in a scene, whereas Cate is like a clown one second, then a tragedian a second later.” He adds, “The energy and the tone is very different from the work we’ve come to know of her from film, which is more poised and still.”
“The Present” will run during the first months of the presidency of Donald Trump — a man Blanchett once said she’d play “in a heartbeat.” Does she still feel the same way?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s about playing Donald Trump or [the Australian politician] Pauline Hanson or whoever it is,” she says. “I think it’s more about doing work that looks at how we’ve ended up where we’ve ended up.”