Tuesday 2 October 2012

Man’s futile quest for permanence

Three Sisters, Young Vic Theatre, London

Benedict Andrews’ modern version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters could have royally pissed me off. Andrews wrote and directed this production and his stamp is all over it. There’s not a word, sound or visual flourish that hasn’t come from him. It could so easily have felt like one huge ego trip – only it works. It works really, really well.

We begin fairly conservatively, although the raised stage has been stripped bare and weird, brash lighting floods the stage and extends out into the audience. It all feels very exposed. The three sisters – weary Olga, moody Masha and dreamy Irina – sit in a triangle formation around the stage. They approach the stage as they approach their lives. Olga (Mariah Gale – honest and intriguing as ever) uses the stage as a desk, Masha (Vanessa Kirby – cruel and mesmerising) smokes and sulks and Irina (Gala Gordon) tiptoes and twizzles around the space, willing people to look at her and love her. 

So far, the production feels clean and the characters vibrant and elegantly defined. The rest of the troops then file in for Irina’s birthday dinner and the play’s themes, quickly and ingeniously, start to resonate strongly. Although the script feels quite casual, packed with contemporary allusions and blunt swear words, it’s lively and true to the characters. And, whilst the dialogue feels ever so loose, the direction is deceptively rigorous, revealing Chekov’s concerns with perfectly considered playfulness.

Vershinin (William Houston) – who looks like a classic romantic hero and sounds like hypnotist – picks up on the girls’ earlier discussion about prevailing memories and hopes for the future. He imagines wiping the board clean and beginning his life anew; ‘I’d invent a radical new existence for myself – in a room like this for example…’ The stage hums with meaning, so clear and so urgent you almost want to reach out and shake the characters silly; ‘Look, here you are anew! Here you are in our room and you’re exactly the same! What do you make of your wafty philosophising now, old chum?!’

It’s rare to feel so involved in a Chekov play and it’s down to Andrews and his magic, directorial wand. Gradually he allows his stage business to speak, loudly and clearly, for the play. A gentle stream of contemporary allusions gradually trickles through the production. Masha’s husband enters wearing jeans. Another chap mentions his despair at being slumped, uselessly, in front of the TV.  These are not arbitrary attempts at modernising a classic; they are clever touches that constantly reaffirm the play’s obsession with time, memory and man’s futile quest for permanence.

The gang leaves the table to pose for a photograph; a moment that again allows Andrews to crystallise Chekov’s characters and concerns. As the girls pose, with varying degrees of confidence, their photo is taken using a snazzy camera ‘from the future’. It feels both hopeful and sad, stressing that the world will continue to advance and these characters, no matter how much they desire change, will stay exactly the same, rooted to the spot by this photograph, by society and by their own instinctive and immutable natures.

These ideas, so latent in Chekov’s text, continue to build splendidly. In the second half, following a devastating fire, the sisters discuss their futures. As they wrangle over a fate that has already been written for them – already been played out countless times across the centuries – stage men, dressed as soldiers, silently dismantle the set between them. The sisters’ are blind to the world changing beneath their very feet.

Interesting, too, is the audience’s reaction to this potentially disruptive stage business. Initially, as the stage hands enter the stage, one greets their arrival with hope; is this a new character come to clear up this mess? But, as that hope is distinguished repeatedly, one starts to tune out the stage-hands. One learns to ignore their subtle but absolute overhaul of the stage space, our world for the night. It’s a strange feeling; almost as if we have become one of the characters on stage, resolutely ignoring or at least unable to change the shifting landscape in front of us.
The contemporary allusions gather pace. We are shown frequent and disturbing flashes from the future. Brother Andry slopes across the stage in a football kit and his wife, Natasha, bears a nasty resemblance to a WAG. It’s doubly depressing, in a play that contains so many characters who long for a better and enlightened future, to see this bleak glimpse from our present. Is this what these characters hoped for? Is this what we call progress? Is this a time we will even want to preserve – or one we might hope to forget? 

Till 3 November 2012


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