May 05, 2007

Three Sisters @ Warwick Arts Centre

It’s been a highly international week- in eight days, three full scale productions- one in Japanese, one in six Indian languages and one in Russian. This is also part of the new road this blog is taking: a review of a non-Shakespearean play by a non-RSC company! How exciting.

The Shakespeare connection is never far away, of course. This is Cheek By Jowl, one of the great theatre companies of our time, with an ensemble made up of several of the cast of their fantastic ‘Twelfth Night’ that’s been in England over the last year. This is the first time, however, that I’ve seen their Russian ensemble perform a play in their native tongue, and what better way to start than with my favourite Chekov play?!

Straight from the start, this was clearly a Cheek By Jowl production. A large stage space, with simple flat scenery and lots of plain chairs and tables ready to be moved about. The whole company, as usual, entered for the start of the play, and as the first scene began those not involved started to slowly move into position. It’s an effective ploy that they used in ‘The Changeling’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ last year, showing the artifice of the play environment from the start and also providing a point of visual reference for the rest of the production.

This was an ensemble piece throughout, with the smaller parts still impacting. The play belonged to the titular sisters though, with Nelly Uvarova giving a poignant performance as Irina, declining throughout from bright-eyed and energetic young girl to weary adult, her life being sapped by the growing pressures on her as she gradually became more like Evgenia Dmitriea’s Olga, who gave a no-nonsense take on the character, trying to hold the household together. Between the two came Irina Grineva’s Masha, who gave possibly the best performance of the three, with Masha swinging between sensible and childish, gracious and sulky, mischievous and angry. The three worked well together, with one of the most effective scenes coming as they sat on the floor together in their bedroom, hiding from Natalia and then mimicking her, rolling around on the floor laughing and hugging as, for one brief and beautiful moment, they rediscovered the bond that connected them, far stronger than anything else.

They were offset by Ekaterina Sibiryakova’s balanced performance as Natalia. Deeply manipulative, she used an unpleasant aping of sisterly behaviour to get what she wanted from the others, putting her head in their laps and making childlike noises. This was nicely contradicted by her emotional outbursts, particularly her irrational screaming about the ‘witch’ Anfisa whom she wanted sacked. Her bad treatment of Andrey was not nearly as shocking, however, as her casual treatment of Irina. Solenyi, in this production, attempted to force himself upon Irina towards the end of Act 2, after declaring his love for her. He was only prevented from raping her by Natalia, who interrupted and then helped Irina up. As she straightened Irina out and motherly tended to her, she used the opportunity to ask Irina to move out of her room and into Olga’s, before whisking out and then reappearing, dressed in finery, for her “drive” with Protopopov. The attempted rape, meanwhile, was clearly not such in Solenyi’s mind, and later Irina’s refusal to let him in was clearly motivated by their earlier encounted, while Solenyi was genuinely confused about what was wrong. In this light, the unpleasantness of Solenyi was made all the more apparent, as a man unaware of what is socially acceptable and the effect of his actions.

This production also played with ideas of performance to good effect- the philosophising of the Baron and Vershinin was converted to a mock revue, in which they leaped up onto a stage, delivered their thoughts to a seated audience and then descended. It added pace and dramatic excitement to a very wordy scene, and was nicely echoed at the end when Olga invited Vershinin to philosophise one last time. She brought him to the front of the stage and gestured to the audience, where he, slightly embarrassed, addressed us directly with his, “Life is hard” speech.

The impact of the play was primarily philosophical, drawing out the themes in the text of the transitory nature of life, the legacies we leave and the potential we fulfil or don’t. Particularly moving was the final scene, as the sisters gathered at the front of the stage to wave off the army, and gradually left Irina alone as the news filtered through of the Baron’s death. The three reunited at the front for Olga’s final speech, given in an inspirational vein while Irina smiled through her tears and Masha defiantly faced the future. I only wish I could understand Russian, for the beauty of what she was saying was entirely clear, and I don’t feel the translation gave enough weight to what was obviously a deeply touching moment.

This was an understated production that showcased what Cheek By Jowl produce best- top quality, actor-based productions. To watch this ensemble work is as if to watch a top acting masterclass, with the design only helping draw attention to the art of the actor. I do believe that Chekov works best performed in his native language, as well, with the music of the words coming across, emphasised by the extraordinary physical fluidity of the performers.

A final moment of praise must go to Igor Yasulovich’s Chebutykin- elderly and relatively static, he still managed an impressive double-footed leap up onto a chair and was affecting throughout, smiling benignly over the others and darting in and out of the action. Coupled with Jonathan Hyde’s Dr. Dorn in the RSC’s ‘The Seagull’, I have to say I’m particularly taken with Chekov’s doctors at the moment!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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