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Arts Festival Review: Three Sisters

Arts Festival Review: Three Sisters

Review by Lyndon Hood

Three Sisters
By Anton Checkov
Directed by Declan Donnellan
22 - 26 Feb at The Opera House
3 hours with one interval
In Russian with English surtitles.


Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod of the UK's Cheek by Jowl have formed a Russian counterpart to that company. They created this production for the Checkov International Theatre Festival.

So it's in Russian – surtitles are projected above and at the sides of the stage. While it's a great help to be told what some (though not, one gathers, all) of the things people are saying mean, you do have to look away from the stage in a production where there is constantly something interesting happening. The distraction may account for some of the restlessness displayed by the audience during the first half. Whatever the reason for it (there's also the inevitable problem of keeping track of all those Russian names, some of the characters who we do not meet), it disappeared after the interval – the production had, and rewarded, our full attention.

Three Sisters does seem to embody just about every cliché about Checkov you might care to name. Aristocrats laguish in the country, wishing they could be somewhere else and complaining about how sad everyone is. Love is not straightfoward. The bourgoisie take over. Eventually, someone gets shot.

It's interesting that all of this slavic melancholy seems somehow more credible when it comes from actual Russians. But a great achievement of the production is that all this talk - all the pontificating, complaining, philosophising – makes sense. The company have found - and show us - human needs and desires behind all those words. Those hidden stories and thoroughly realised characters are more where Checkov weaves his magic than anything to do with the spiritual sorrow of the slavic peoples. It's a goal that is realised in this production, for each of the huge cast of significant characters.

Not that the play isn't full of crushed hopes and abandoned dreams. In fact, that's pretty much what it's about; the characters struggle in the search for happiness, or even the hope for happiness, or the possiblity of some kind of happiness for some future generation, in the face of, apparently, everything.

And specualtions about a bright future here take on a particularly poigniant touch. When Vershinin asserts that, 100 or 200 years on, everything will better and everyone will be happy, he does so looking (with increasing specificity over the course of the play) in the direction of the audience. Living as we do just over a century after Checkov was writing, the point is well taken.

The naturalism of the text is leavened by such touches of theatricality. As when what are (as far as all the character are concerned) whispered conversations at the edges of the dinner party are in fact conducted directly over the table.

And Donnellan also seems happy to throw in little bits of business around the text, often to great comic effect but also to fleshing out themes and characters. Towards the end of the play, Masha notes that the birds are migrating. It's one of those little symbolic moments Checkov likes to throw in: the birds are flying off but the sisters are trapped, the army regiment that was the only interest in the town is also leaving, it will be winter soon. Here, Masha watches them fly for a few moment, then slowly raises her arm and makes a shooting noise, then leaves, imitiating a plummeting bird.

While the cast are costumed with what seems careful historical accuracy, the set is not naturalistic: two rectagular panels hang in blackness at the back of the stage – images of the exterior of the house which change in the last act to forest. More specific locations are arranged or constructed as required out of a large number of chairs and low tables.

As we entered the theatre, a white doll's house sat front and centre in dappled light. As a prop, it was shared with last festival's surtitled theatre piece Eraritjaritjaka; its presence also evokes Ibsen's A Doll's House as well as evoking the claustrophobia, role-playing and childishness that Ibsen's play shares with Checkov's. And, though the object barely has a role in the action, the house where the family lives is of no small importance. The thought that has gone into Donnellan's driection is reflected in Nick Ormerod's design.

The symbolism in the play shows up all the more with the simplicity of the setting. The provincial town seems as much a representation of life in general than a particular place, the idea of moving to Moscow not just an example of an impossible dream, but the examplar of every impossible dream.

This, and the existential bleakness and teaful comedy of the play does give rise to comparisons with absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett. Certainly, the sisters are not going to go to Moscow (much as they might dream of it) any more than Beckett's Godot is going to show up to meet Vladmir and Estragon.

The difference is that in Three Sisters all this is bound up with a cast of characters that we can understand and, at least in the case of the sisters, can like – all of them realised with passion by a talented cast. The combinaton of these elements makes for great and truly affecting theatre.

********

Three Sisters on the Arts Festival Website

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