“It’s like a nail being hammered in my head”
Back when the Young Vic announced their forthcoming shows as being A Doll’s House and Three Sisters, I was a little surprised at how safe the programming seemed, on the surface at least. For as it turned out, Ibsen was revitalised by Simon Stephens to stunning effect in one of the shows of the year so far and so expectations were high for Chekhov’s turn, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, the Australian auteur whose Cate Blanchett-starring Big and Small proved to be somewhat divisive.
And this production, set in an abstract modern day, also seems set to provoke strong opinion. From Helen Rappaport’s literal translation, Andrews has thoroughly modernised the language of this story of three young women trapped in a stultifying provincial Russian town, dreaming of heady love affairs and escaping to the Moscow of their childhoods yet unable to fully wrest control of their lives from the cruel twists of fate. But dislocating the play from the social and economic context in which Chekhov conceived it seriously undermines a central aspect of the drama.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the socio-economic opportunities open to women in Russian society were clearly limited, hence this portrait of the oppressiveness of small-town life proving so durable, but in this world where the sing-songs around the piano are to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, people are taking pictures on their iPhones and playing with remote-controlled helicopters, and the sisters hum Leonard Cohen and David Bowie to each other, it is hard to really feel the sense of constraint that is apparently binding them there. This is a world where the choices open to them are far greater and so their conflicts seem much less compellingly final, whether the inability to get to Moscow, to escape their detested sister-in-law or to simply divorce a dull husband.
Matters are not helped by the strength of Andrews’ directorial vision which largely serves to impose visually arresting but dramatically redundant tableaux on the production. Flowers are melodramatically strewn about to be swept up straightaway, a multitude of candles are lit off to the side to be simply extinguished where they are, the deconstruction of Johannes Schütz’s jigsaw-of-tables set in Act 3 is a portentous over-extended metaphor which doesn’t really work in the grand scheme of things. Consequently, the staging and the text don’t always seem to work together, the new interpretation not feeling quite right in its skin and leaving the sense that Andrews doesn’t have the confidence to let the play speak for itself.
It is undoubtedly well-acted: Mariah Gale’s eldest Olga already washed out by life, Vanessa Kirby’s rock-chick-like Masha a sharply comic presence despite her disillusionment with her marriage and Gala Gordon, in an impressive debut performance, growing in maturity to finally be able to assert what she needs to do as the play reaches its climax. Emily Barclay was my favourite performer though, this Australian actress seizing every opportunity to steal scenes as Natasha, rising from the village girl they all mock to their outrageously brash sister-in-law. Of the men, William Houston’s swaggering Vershinin and Adrian Schiller’s tolerantly bookish Kulygin do well, with Michael Feast epitomising Chekhovian despondency as the troubled Chebutykin.
But across the wide open thrust stage and along the three hours of the running time, the company struggle to engage and compel with each other and with the story, and thus it emerges as less than essential. Andrews’ vision clearly aspires to the epic and never shies away from being controversial, which isn’t a problem in itself, but when it is predicated on such a misconceived premise as the updating here, it makes for a rather trying experience.