Review: Three Sisters

Written for Time Out

Three Sisters

After the Young Vic’s recent radical interpretation you’d be forgiven in thinking that ‘Three Sisters’ had been ‘updated’ once and for all. But The Faction’s contemporary production is a fresh, if fractured, reading of Anton Chekhov’s classic.

Ranjit Bolt’s sharp adaptation zings with pop culture one liners and places the spotlight on the self-absorbption of the titular trio. Cosmopolitan migrants Olga, Masha and Irina spend hours bemoaning their provincial surroundings and philosophising about life with their cabal of admiring soldiers. Hope soon turns to despondency as their dreams of getting back to Moscow are disappointed and then dashed.

Bolt’s no-nonsense script eschews family dynamic in favour of reinforcing private torments but he avoids sinking things into complete self-pity and retains Chekhov’s lively bitter sweet comedy throughout. The focus on individualism shines a new light on this classic – particularly in dashing soldier Vershinin, whose romantic philosophising and wooing of Masha is hinted at as a selfish façade to pass the time.

It’s an interesting take and an elegantly constructed production, performed by an impressive company. But coupled with costumes that look like they’ve come from Victoria Beckham’s catwalk and a sparse set, Mark Leipacher’s production makes for a very modern – Thatcherite? – ‘Three Sisters’ that begs the question; in this day and age wouldn’t these young women just buy a ticket and go to Moscow?

For more information on this show and The Faction’s rep season at New Diorama go here

Three Sisters @ Noel Coward Theatre

Written for

Review: Three Sisters – Noel Coward **

Having made a bold start with an engrossing Into The Whirlwind, Sovremennik’s Three Sisters is a distinctly beige vision of Anton Chekhov’s dissection of bourgeoisie disappointment and frustration. Galina Volchek’s respectful and measured production begins with some lovely moments of play between siblings but soon begins to melt into a torpidity which refuses to shift off the shoulders of this soon to be heavy auditorium.

In the midst on this monotony a small sliver of salvation comes from a few wonderful performances and the pleasure of hearing Chekhov’s rich lyricism encased in his native tongue. Chulpan Khamatova’s spirited Masha flickers and burns with intelligent fervour, her velvet voice adding a resolute gravitas to her slight frame and anxious physicality. As her lover Vladislav Vetrov’s Vershinin is both master of his passions and a victim of them, his resigned air lending an impossible charm to this old idealist. Their fated love affair adds spice to an otherwise long second act.

Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s whirligig revolving stage spins our characters round on a futile access of movement, never getting them anywhere. But throughout the production this soon becomes arbitrary and it is never really clear why there is a bridge over the top of this troubled household. Volchek seems to have expended all her vision into a design full of superfluous bells and whistles, leaving her company (and audience) covering dusty old ground.

The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.