By Anton Chekhov
10th November 2015
Everybody has to break their Chekhov duck at some point!
Last night’s Three Sisters at the People’s Theatre was my time and what a wonderful way to start. The situation may be gruelling but the play never so.
Bran Green and Ann Short’s impeccably staged production brought out all the comedy, tragedy, complexity, wisdom and intrigue with whip-crack pace and a perfect ensemble.
The titular sisters were brought to life by Ellie Pullen (Olya), Geffen Yoeli-Rimmer (Irina) and Rye Mattick (Masha) whose delicate frustration and tolerance with each other ramped up the pathos. Alongside the more central themes of loneliness, impossible dreams, nostalgia and perseverance of course. Mattick’s portrayal of Masha thrives on angered outbursts and a sultry detachment from her horrific boredom, which she treats with an affair as the play goes on. Alternatively, Pullen’s character is shown as doing her best to get through an unfulfilling life of selfless drudgery, while Yoeli-Rimmer’s gentle Irina is shown moving touchingly from misguided optimism to terrible acceptance of the cruelty of life. One episode of her life in particular is very intense and affecting.
When we first meet them, they aren’t the most sympathetic trio with their constant whining and self-absorption but when their brother Andrey (a fine natural performance by Ian Willis) brings home the manipulative and scheming Natasha (Sara-Jo Harrison), few people couldn’t pity the dire situation that unravels.
There are several other stand-out performances, although nobody misses the mark, from the psychotic Junior Cpt. Solyony (Stuart Laidler) and the apathetic Dr. Chebutykin (Kevin Gibson) to the jovially cuckolded Kulygin (Andrew De’Ath) and childish soldier Fedotik (Alex Blenkey).
The black comedy of farcical anguish is created through the mix of abhorrent and pathetic characters, and moments of great tenderness mix seamlessly with hysterical narcissism. The cast gelled with immaculate precision and their writhing, wallowing body language alone was endlessly intriguing.
The particular style of dialogue (‘balletic’, as it was termed by one audience member) takes a bit of getting used to for a newcomer; not so much the fact that hardly anyone answers what another character has asked, absurdist theatre has normalised that for me, but the heavy flow of expositional information seemed to grate at first.
Then, of course, it becomes clear that with such a rich and complex story, a helluva lot has to be expressed very quickly otherwise the plot cannot be enjoyed and reflected upon. Indeed the reflection in the dialogue is part of the enjoyment, as existential concerns are passed among the sorry group as often as shards of half-remembered poetry and music hall trills. Beautiful and haunting soliloquies expound on themes of love, family, work and the self, on top of this gorgeously realised mosaic of faded glory, flaming forests and military action. ‘What does it matter?’ ‘If only we knew..’ ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!’
To say I came to this completely ignorant of Chekhov would be a slight lie as Sky Arts produced some interpretations of his short comedies a few years ago, and the performances last night certainly match and at times outdo those versions.
I’m also glad to say the play itself did not disappoint, with certain lines and moments (particularly relating to the disconcerting Solyony) still rotating ponderously around my head.
The way the characters talk of poverty, class war and depression it could have been written yesterday. Surely the sign of a great play, and a rather sad world.
So whether you already love the old Russian master or are seeking out something historically appreciated to why it has garnered all the fuss, the People’s Theatre have provided yet another terrific production. Yes, it’s a tad long… but so is the winter.