Set in the inner sanctum of Catherine the Great, Tony McNamara’s “The Great” plays fast and loose with the facts, triumphing style over substance and wit over accuracy in an entertaining manner its namesake would likely have appreciated. The writer’s seventh play, and first period piece, portrays the monarch’s domestic travails from when she’s sent from France to Russia to marry Peter I, through her son’s attempts to remove her from the throne. In Sydney Theater Company’s world premiere presentation, McNamara’s contemporary comedic style, Peter Evans’ taut direction and energetic perfs from an ensemble in firm control of their rapid-fire repartee produce a show almost worth its three-hour duration.
Catherine is a terrific character study by dint of her social progressiveness and unwavering commitment to having a good time, despite ruling a vast empire. The flagrant philandering for which, fairly or unfairly, she has become renowned is portrayed liberally and enthusiastically.
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Rather than mulling the plots and conspiracies that marked her reign, the play concentrates on the daily machinations of court life. McNamara gives it a distinctly Australian flavor by using history merely as an irreverent backdrop.
Toby Schmitz is terrific as Peter I in act one, his elastic physicality underscoring the playwright’s gift for outrageously obnoxious dialogue. Robyn McLeavy spars superbly with Schmitz as young Catherine, while Liz Alexander as the older Catherine and Nicholas Bell as Orlo are excellent in the shorter — and ultimately duller — second act.Set designer Fiona Crombie’s ornately painted floor featuring a revolving disc enhances the production, as do Tess Schofield’s eye-catching contemporized Russian-themed costumes.
“The Great” is one of seven new works commissioned by departing STC topper Robyn Nevin for her final season before she makes way in the 2008-09 season for the new a.d. team of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton.