Writer: Anton Chekhov, in a version by Benedict Andrews
Director: Benedict Andrews
Reviewer: Mary Halton
The Public Reviews Rating:
Three hours of Chekhov. Modernised. Not to everyone’s taste to be sure and a unique way for this reviewer to have their first experience of the hallowed dramatist’s work. School desks form a raised stage, crowned by a mound of dirt that threaten a prolonged metaphysical metaphor. However, surprises await in Benedict Andrews’ version of Three Sisters. What should have been overlong, belaboured and perhaps even self indulgent… isn’t. Somehow the cacophony of bells, spinning tops, Nirvana, smashing clocks and odd outbursts of David Bowie condense into something that works. It is a piece that skips, jumps, parties, slows to think, gets drunk and forgets itself, but above all doesn’t take itself too seriously in doing so.
Olga (Mariah Gale), Irina (Gala Gordon) and Masha (Vanessa Kirby) and their brother Andrey (Danny Kirrane) are seemingly trapped in a nameless Russian town, population 100,000. Bored to death of their surroundings, they dream constantly of returning to Moscow, where they lived as children. There seems to be no real reason why they cannot – though blame is idly apportioned to various members of the family in turn. Their father, dead for a year as the play opens, has left a vacuum and they are listless and unmotivated in his wake. His spectre, both physical (his picture holds a sacred place on the wall, akin to that of prophet or dictator) and figurative, is to hang over the entire first half of proceedings, much as the spectre of Moscow, their imagined and remembered Moscow, haunts in a very real fashion.
Almost upon opening her mouth, Vanessa Kirby’s Masha is the most arresting of the three. An almost accidental sensuality coupled with the wicked sense of devil-may-care bred by boredom and the frustrations of a mismatched marriage have produced a spiky Beatrice – all matter and no mirth, hardened but not yet hopeless. Masha’s bitterness against the world is matched only by her childishness in love and Kirby expertly draws out the coquettishness, hunger and animal grief of Masha’s affair with William Houston’s Vershinin.
Olga is the Anne Elliot of the piece, and Gale’s muted desire and strong sense of duty are achingly pitch perfect. Never has someone so successfully looked despondent in an oversized bear costume. Masha feels all, Irina nothing and Olga anchors both, refusing to allow herself such luxuries.
So what is Three Sisters about? Ultimately; nothing. Therein lies its beauty. For three hours (including interval) we are spellbound by a process that is wholly cyclical – a family are dissatisfied with their lives, but act with virtually no agency. Hopes are raised and dashed again. As the elevated stage of their castle in the sky is deconstructed around them during the second half, they still await ‘God’s will’. We close, with three sisters still perched on their pile of dirt, waiting for someone to tell them what it all means.
It is hard to pinpoint what is so addictive about the whole process – servants, suitors and soldiers dart about the Prozorov family, proselytising about happiness, the future and the meaning of life. Impassioned speeches are offset by deadpan humour with precisely the kind of comic timing that makes such a saga of self-denial and unfulfilled potential not only endurable but enjoyable. The Mobot makes a guest appearance. So many philosophies are put forth that it is impossible to settle on one. The key here is that Andrews knows his characters are slightly ridiculous. They are real and broken and wanting, but ultimately open to ridicule – often at their own hands. This is clever alchemy – an impassioned cocktail of trammelled spirit, utter abandon and frankly bizarre humour.
This probably isn’t Chekhov for everyone, and there are already those offended by this reimagining; unfond of a classic text being grabbed by the proverbials, and Nirvana. But if you are going to begin with Chekhov, certainly begin here. It’s brave, bolshie and fascinating, as long as you don’t mind leaving the theatre with your head spinning.