“Always full of women, whining about ducks going to Moscow”

Three Sisters at the New Diorama Theatre

Three Sisters offers a wealth of scope to explore deeply rich material, and yet this production misses the mark. Chekhov’s masterpiece is powerfully resurrected in Ranjit Bolt’s new version, but the writing contains so much more potential than the production achieves. At the New Diorama Theatre. 

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It takes a certain kind of person to embrace a night of Chekhov. And it takes a certain cast and creative team to do it successfully. You may remember Withnail declaring all Russian plays are “always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow” (Withnail & I, 1987). Well, yes, there is a lot of whining. And Moscow crops up more than once. Aside from mockery born out of one-dimensional loath-fuelled ignorance, Chekhovian drama offers a wealth of scope to explore deeply rich material… and that’s why his plays belong to a classical cannon, and deservedly so. Three Sisters is no exception. Written at the turn of the 20th Century, the play explores failed aspiration, suffocating relationships, the meaning of life, ennui and Weltschmerz(I’m not showing off, but this is the perfect word for a particular type of suffering you experience when your dreams don’t live up to reality).

Chekhov’s masterpiece is powerfully resurrected in Ranjit Bolt’s new age version. As you can imagine, the writing is particularly powerful. Despite a century dividing the two writers; Bolt has managed to capture the true essence of Chekhov and those “Russian plays”. However OTT some of the incessant dialogue may feel, the majority of us will be able to identify with the themes contained within the play… and perhaps some of us will relate to the characters’ discontentment.

Despite Faction Theatre’s impressive track record, the main flaws in this production are the acting and direction. In most cases, I failed to see the motivation behind actions and words. Lines have a tendency to spring out of nowhere. Yes, the play is dialogue-heavy – but it’s naturalistic in the way it mirrors day-to-day speech, and the delivery should in turn reflect the internal processes. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, occasionally resulting in wooden and premeditated work. Sporadic bursts of tears clearly do not stem out of an emotional connection and the fake crying seems unfounded. Granted, the play demands quite a lot of its actors, but that’s Chekhov for you! The text gives enough substance to back up all of the evident angst; but this isn’t fully explored. It’s such a shame that the play offers so much meat and yet this production is skeletal in comparison.

Saying that, certain performances outshine others: Jonny McPherson made for a very natural and believable Vershinin, and Laura Freeman’s modern day portrayal of Natasha is well and intelligently conceived, although feels somewhat out of place.

The play is riddled with tension – but the relationship dynamics do not reflect this and, although a sense of frustration is conveyed, the atmosphere does not feel centred on contempt, loathing, discomfort and strain. Soleni is supposed to be a poisonous presence, casting darkness on all their lives… however, in this production, he comes across as a spoilt child with a bit of a temper. Tuzenbach’s goodbye to Irina before heading off to the duel and his inevitable death is pretty lame considering the stakes. The pair plays out a touching goodbye, but there’s no sense of a heroic statement with his parting words. Tuzenbach just slips away, and – despite knowing his fate – I can’t imagine many of us really care.

There is a problem with the identity of the piece and there are a few inconsistencies that are mildly irritating. The costume design is all over the shop. Some wear classical outfits, others jeans and Adidas t-shirts. We know not to expect lavish sets and that’s fine; but the design needs to paint some kind of consistent picture, to help the cast build a fitting atmosphere. The action is supposed to span three years and yet very little changes, so you’d hardly notice. Perhaps this is the point; they’re stuck in an eternity of unyielding suffering. Regardless, there’s little linking the action to a period or to a space – no unity of time or place.

There are also inconsistencies with the approach. Modernity is randomly shoved in but it doesn’t work. Chebutikin presents an electric kettle at one point – but that’s about as modern as it gets – for the most part, the production is directed as a classical piece. So why include a half-heartedly amusing electric kettle scene? Why clothe the maid in a modern-day sports label? Keep it classical or make it modern. Blending elements of both is messy. To summarise, Ranjit Bolt’s fresh version of Three Sisters contains so much more potential than the production achieves. 

Date reviewed: Tuesday 15th January 2013
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