One of the most justifiably despised genres for new plays is the Unofficial Sequel. Do you think I care what happened to Beatrice and Benedick after they got married? Or where Godot has actually been all this time? No. Stoppard has a lot to answer for.
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I approached Pitch Dark Theatre’s Masha and the Bear; a look at Chekhov’s Three Sisters before and after the events of his play. One of the pitfalls of the Unofficial Sequel is the presupposition that the audience knows the minutiae of the play you are riffing on. Masha and the Bear is admirably restrained in its use of the original text. Yes, the references and in-jokes are still there, but writer/director Abbey Wright focuses wisely on the characters of the sisters - Olga, prim and maternal; Irina, young and clearly in awe of her sisters; and the titular Masha, bold and imaginative, and suffocated by loveless marriage.
Rather than concentrating immediately after or before the time of the play, Wright pieces together a story flip-flopping between past and present - offering scraps of the lives of the three girls in reality and memory. Having done away with the intimacy and claustrophobia afforded by Chekhov’s adherence to a single setting, Wright instead mines the intimacy of moments shared by sisters -a boring dinner, folding a sheet - with Chekhovian subtext shimmering across snatched glances.
The four performers - there is a brief role for Melissa Charlton as Masha’s maidservant Sophia - are uniformly strong. Kathryn Daw plays the balance between stern and sisterly to a tee, with a tut rarely far from her lips. Her gravitas is particularly well used in returning to Masha’s empty house, playing the unspoken feelings of loss, whilst distracting herself with busying herself over tidying, or fussing with spindly fingers over a box of receipts. She also gets given a perfectly weighted Chekhovian line - ‘I’m not sure this is fun’ - which she uses to drolly puncture the hyperactive tendencies of her sisters. Sparking effectively off Daw’s Olga, Josie Daxter makes her Irina childlike and wide-eyed, with her maturity late in the play subtle and poignant. As Masha, Rosie Mason marries the emotional weight of her desperate situation with the manic energy of someone driven to reclaim her vitality from those that would take it away.
Masha and the Bear is a subtle and suitably restrained affair that can prove challenging narratively - much is left for an audience to assume or work out in their own time, but the ambiguities are rarely frustrating or impede one’s understanding of the characters themselves. The sisters are key; they invite the audience into the sisterly clique, aiming to reveal nothing, but revealing everything. Pitch Dark Theatre’s attention to detail and specificity in the subdued and subtextual moments should be commended, as should the focus and restraint of the writing of the piece. It is a fringe show of genuine quality, and exudes an intelligence rarely seen in London’s smaller theatres.
Run over. Now at the Tabard Theatre till 25 March 2006.