Spooky things are happening on The Cut – the street where neighbouring theatres, the Old Vic and the Young Vic, reside. Well, maybe not exactly 'spooky', but by a strange co-incidence two classics have opened within a day of each other. At the Old Vic on wednesday night we had the opening of the hundred-odd-year-old play 'Hedda Gabler' by Henrik Ibsen, and last night the Young Vic threw open its doors for the opening of Anton Chekhov's 100-odd-year-old play 'Three Sisters'. So, two classic plays on the same street at the same time. However, they are very different.
Adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, this version of Chekhov's well-loved and much-produced play has had a modern makeover. In my review about 'Hedda Gabler', I mused about whether that play was relevant for modern – iPhone-toting – audiences, and right on cue Mr Andrews provides a suitable vehicle for that market segment, and maybe several others. This is not the first time he has up-dated this play. Eleven years ago, he produced a version of 'Three Sisters' at the Sydney Opera House which caused something of a stir. This version is new, but the staging and dialogue will nonetheless feel and look very different to those who have seen the play before in a more traditional guise.
'Three Sisters' is actually about three sisters and a brother – The Prozorovs - and the people they find themselves living with, among or near. The siblings moved to the nondescript provincial town where they live when their father, an army officer, was posted to the provinces from Moscow. Subsequently, their father died but the family have remained in their uninspiring environment, but yearn to return to Moscow. The eldest sister, Olga, is an unmarried schoolteacher of 28, Masha is married to another schoolteacher, and the youngest sister, Irina, is just celebrating her twentieth birthday as the play begins. Brother Andrey is academically capable and hopes for a career in a university in Moscow. However, he marries Natasha and then promptly starts gambling heavily and has to mortgage the family house to pay his debts. In the end, he has to settle for a job with the local council – which seems to merely involve signing mountains of documents - and drinking cans of lager. An army battery is stationed nearby the family home and officers are regular visitors at the Prozorovs' house inevitably leading to romantic entanglements with the sisters.
With its flexible seating, the main house at the Young Vic can be radically transformed to fit the dramatic and logistical requirements of a production. In this case, the audience are seated on three sides with a huge raised platform forming the acting area in the middle. Above that is a huge kind of canopy which provides diffused lighting. In the second half, the 'stage' is revealed to be constructed of an enormous number of tables which are laboriously removed one-by-one (while the action continues on the remaining tables) presumably symbolising the break-up of the army camp and the remaining hopes of the sisters to escape the tedium of their lives.
'Three Sisters' was described by Chekhov as a drama, though it does have elements of both comedy and tragedy. Benedict Andrews does a commendable job of reinvigorating the play, making it readily accessible by injecting the dialogue with suitably modern concepts. The garden here is transformed into a simple, large mound of earth, devoid of vegetation. For the family, this is a barren, desert-like environment from which they can never escape and so the mound seems symbolically valid. However, that did not stop the cast being a little overwhelmed, it seems, when they were first introduced to it.
Benedict Andrews may have taken liberties with some of the dialogue – we hear about hair transplants, the 'telly' and dieting, for example – but nothing in the script seemed to jar unduly and the basic story remains in tact. In the acting department, I particularly enjoyed Danny Kirraine's larger-drinking Andrey and his deaf council clerk Ferapont (astutely played by Harry Dickman) who nags him to sign papers. The sisters (Mariah Gale as Olga, Gala Gordon as Irina, and Vanessa Kirby as Masha) are all impressively well-cast and Emily Barclay makes a very humorous transition from ill-dressed village girl scorned by the sisters, to dominating the entire household.
I have to confess that I am not overly fond of 'Three Sisters'. For me, it is a kind a Russian soap opera where people long for change but do nothing to effect it and ultimately have to resign themselves to an unsatisfying, boring existence. That of course is the intention, I suppose, but I still find it frustrating. That said, this version is rather refreshing though not so radically unique, I don't think, as to be hugely controversial, but you can never tell. And, with another classic play only a few yards down the road, the competition could well be fierce.
"This version does not set out to endear itself to traditionalists...It is is neither a full-blooded contemporary reworking of Chekhov nor a thorough-going deconstruction. Instead, with the deliberate effect of jarring anachronism, it updates the language and the cultural references but it does not revealingly revise the life-expectations of Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary characters or the intimations of impending seismic change.This creates a weird, dislocated world..."
Paul Taylor for Independent
"Exhilarating...a dazzling and unforgettable production."
Ben Dowell for The Stage
"Textual tinkering with the classics rarely works. Better to go the whole hog, as Benedict Andrews does in this radical new Three Sisters, which is set in today's Russia, peppered with four-letter words and has the cast singing a Kurt Cobain number. For all its strangeness, I found Andrews' production true to the spirit of Chekhov's great play and, in the end, profoundly moving."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is a moving and absorbing Three Sisters."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard