Tag Archives: Ria Zmitrowicz

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre

Three Sisters - The Almeida

Across the creative industries the right collaborations can yield huge rewards and finding the right person to work with can result in years of success. Long-standing partnerships are more common than you might realise, designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd have worked together not just on the recent Pinter season but on countless productions before that and will be tackling Evita together in Regent’s Park in August. At last week’s Olivier Awards, director Marianne Elliott and her collaborative designer Bunny Christie walked away with an armful of awards for Company following previous international success with Angels in America and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but they weren’t the only partnership clutching trophies.

Last year, Director Rebecca Frecknall and actor Patsy Ferran joined forces for the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke, a new alliance that last March produced a striking and emotive production of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known plays. A West End transfer followed in the autumn and, last week, two Olivier awards for Best Revival and Best Actress – a notable achievement for two early-career theatre-makers. Just over a year since it opened, and days after their Olivier victories, expectant eyes now turn to the Almeida once more where their new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has started previews before facing the press tomorrow.

In recent years, traditional approaches to staging classic plays have been swept away, removing cluttered sets and stuffy costumes to allow the human stories to resonate more forcefully with an audience. While period-specific adaptations still occur, some of the most successful productions in recent memory have freed themselves from the confinement of place and time to focus on the psychology and emotional experience of the characters. van Hove’s approach to Ibsen and Miller, the National Theatre’s Chekhov trilogy, and now Frecknall’s own treatment of Williams and Chekhov have eschewed heavy sets and instead drawn from the writer’s creation of atmospheric suffocation and inevitable devastation within the text.

Three Sisters like much of Chekhov’s work is a rural story of isolation, loneliness and stunted dreams in which the glittering possibility of city life and freedom of intellectual expression weigh heavy on characters unable to escape their present circumstances. Few Directors have such a meaningful grasp of a play’s emotional beat as Frecknall, and in her production the competing frustrations of one family and the surrounding townsfolk ebb and flow as years and opportunities slip away from them. In this minimally-staged approach Chekhov’s comment on the erosion of knowledge and the individual unhappiness it subsequently causes sits alongside philosophical discussions on the rights to happiness and the creation of a better future.

And you feel those emotional beats from the start as Frecknall and writer Cordelia Lynn frame the drama with the funeral of the beloved patriarch. The stage is set with rows of chairs and a single piano, both – like Summer and Smoke – have a symbolic quality that underscores the drama. This proliferation of furniture represents the emotional clutter at the start of the play, the many obstacles standing between the family and their desired migration to Moscow. At Irina’s name-day celebration that marks the first scene, most of the characters are on stage, a reasonably happy occasion full of expectation, hope and possibility with this still young family mixing contentedly with the locals and stationed military officers.

But Frecknall ensures that the undercurrents subtly make themselves known through the positioning of brother Andrey on a shelf-like platform behind the stage suggesting not only his own semi-separation from his siblings but also the extent to which his actions will soon dominate and determine the outcome of all their lives; first in the expectation that his Professorship will allow the siblings to relocate to the city, and later through his ill-starred marriage to the prickly Natasha – note too that as her influence grows in later scenes, she physically assumes his place watching-over the household.

The slow removal of chairs from the stage throughout Act One represents the characters’ move towards self-realisation during the four years of the play, as they come to accept the difference between the dreams they harbour for the future, their own self-delusions that sustain them and the crushing reality that shatters these illusions. And while Summer and Smoke used a collection of pianos to add musical emphasis at key moments, here there is only one which remains unused throughout, embodying Irina and Masha’s comments on their livs being like an unplayed piano, a crucial insight into Masha in particular and the outpouring of emotion her affair with Vershinin unleashes. The closed and soundless piano comes to represent the shutting down of the female bodies in the play where marriage is a much a barrier to Masha’s happiness as purposeless maidenhood is for Olga and Irina.

Three Sisters is a story with many different currents and Frecknall emphasises the youth of her characters in the early part of the play as the Sergeyevich family – all under 30 – mix with the equally youthful townsfolk and soldiers. Older characters are present, but you feel the youthful surge of hope and of a different kind of future before real responsibility and burden make their mark. One of this production’s most interesting attributes is watching that shift as the story’s various entanglements play out; first we see Vershinin’s growing despair at the drastic behaviour of his mentally unwell wife and the pressure on his two young daughters (none of whom we see), and the audience must take their cues from Vershinin’s  world-weariness despite being only a little more than a decade older than the family. Likewise, the frustrations inherent in both Masha and Andrey’s marriages show how quickly the optimism of romance sours into regret, bitterness and, in both cases, reckless attempts to escape their confinement.

As events play out, the oldest characters come more sharply into focus, so that when the now somewhat eroded Irina turns to the Doctor for comfort four years and four Acts after her celebratory name-day, he too is unable to provide any solace that life becomes more explicable or navigable as he sinks once more into alcoholism and depression. Even the small role of Anfisa the servant, a much-discussed figure, becomes too old to be of use to the hard-hearted Natasha, a bone of contention with the kinder Olga. Frecknall’s meaningful inter-generational drama shows age as a series of disappointments and eventual disposal – perhaps the philosophising Vershinin is right and the only meaning in life is to live in the hope that someone else’s future will be better.

Surprisingly, eldest sister Olga (always dressed in blue) is the least substantial of the roles, appearing in far fewer scenes than her sisters. Ferran is excellent as the reluctant schoolmistress cast aside at 28 with no question of marriage, only a career she doesn’t want. It’s a subtle performance from Ferran who, with less stage time, infers much about Olga’s role as pseudo-matriarch, trying to protect her sisters and silently keeping the household together, while clearly struggling with the expected self-sacrifice, duty and the reliance of others.

While Ferran is the show’s biggest draw, it is Pearl Chanda whose performance as the asphyxiated Masha that you will remember, along with Peter McDonald’s sensitive and affecting Vershinin. Their relationship is one of the production’s most exciting and beautifully rendered storylines, charting a slow falling in love that overwhelms them both, realising only too late how devotedly attached they have become. It begins gently, a look, a preference for each other’s conversation and a tendency to gravitate towards one another without consciously realising it. As time leaps forward with each Act so too does the depth of their passion and reliance on one another to keep afloat in spite of their terrible marriages, an intimacy that Frecknall skilfully extracts from her actors.

With a notable role in Ink as the first Page Three girl, Chanda’s Masha is detached, cynical and coldly withdrawn from the husband she now considers a fool. Permanently in black, she is a dark presence at most family gatherings, suggesting a jaded depression far beyond her 24-years. Yet, the affair with Vershinin creates a kind of hope, transforming her into a warm and vital woman whenever he is in the room. The connection between them is electrifyingly portrayed by McDonald and Chanda, far more than lust, there is a true meeting of souls that lights them both so even in the background their intimacy and happiness in each other’s company is manifold, full of shy smiles and a need to seek each other’s eyes.

McDonald is equally empathetic, delivering his philosophical speeches and declarations of love with credulity and passion. There is an inner torment that McDonald elicits well, driven by the pain of his wife’s problems and the strain of caring for his family. The freedom Vershinin experiences with Masha is genuinely lovely, despite its adulterous nature, and its essential tragedy makes their stolen moments so moving. When the inevitable occurs in Act Four, its all the more affecting for being the most demonstrative either has been in public, and while McDonald’s Vershinin tries to retain a manly dignity, the crumbling of Chanda’s Masha is genuinely powerful.

A similar experience of snatched dreams affects the rest of the family; the development of youngest sister Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz – always in white) is engagingly handled as we see her grow from a childish 20-year old into a sadly resigned woman of 24, trying to balance the pressure to marry with a desire for independent work as the family dreams of Moscow come apart. Her collection of potential lovers are, however, thinly sketched and hard to keep track of in a busy show which does draw some power from what should be a dramatic finale.

Freddie Meredith finds all of Andrey’s weaknesses as the head of a household who actively separates himself from it. His self-inflicted decline has much to say about the hollow nature of power in rural masculinity, while Lois Chimimba captures all of Natasha’s foibles as a local girl determined to punish and dominate a family who despise her lack of intellect. Laura Hunt’s decision to dress her in pink and green throughout after Olga criticises the combination is an inspired choice that reveals so much about Natasha’s destructive resentment.

A production has to do a lot to earn a three-hour run time and this new version of Three Sisters very nearly does. The first couple of Acts fly by, full of gripping narrative and, surprisingly for Chekhov, plenty of comedy largely provided by Masha’s silly but ardent husband Fyodor (Elliot Levey). Aspect of the last Act aren’t yet fulfilling their dramatic potential, partly because Irina’s various suitors never properly come into focus and their encounter is a large driver for the finale, but also the various comings and goings from the stage mean that, other than the Masha-Vershinin parting, the conclusion doesn’t feel as cataclysmic for everyone else as perhaps it could.

Following up on the heart-stoppingly beautiful Summer and Smoke was never going to be easy, partly that’s because the latter was just one of those extraordinary theatre moments where everything comes alive, but there are also differences between the writing styles of Chekhov and Williams  – they certainly have themes in common but express them and the emotional vulnerability of their characters quite differently. If perhaps Three Sisters isn’t quite as ravishing as Frecknall and Ferran’s first collaboration then that’s hardly a criticism, it is still a vibrant and meaningful interpretation of Chekhov that reaps rewards. Keep on an eye on this new theatre partnership, it could be around for many years to come.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida until 25 May with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Dance Nation – Almeida Theatre

Dance Nation - Almeida

September is upon us and at this time of year, as the night’s draw in and the first signs of autumn appear, our thoughts turn to dance. For the last 14 years, the BBC’s behemoth dance show Strictly Come Dancing has dominated our screens, guiding the viewer from early autumn to Christmas with endless paso doble’s, tangos and foxtrots. And as the celebrities for the 2018 series set to work, the Almeida Theatre’s new play about American pre-teen dance troupe competitions has coincidentally, or perhaps purposefully, been scheduled to capitalise on the annual return of dance fever.

Set predominantly in a dance studio in middle America, Dance Nation follows the members of a dance troupe who enter a series of national competitions in the hope of winning the overall championship. Led by “Dance Teacher Pat” who choreographs a brand new number evoking the life and spirit of Gandhi, he pushes the team to live-up to the school’s reputation for producing winners, using the power of dance to heal the world. As Connie and Zuzu land the leading roles, star dancer Amina is left on the side-lines, but as their bodies and minds develop are any of the girls destined for a career in dance?

While Barron’s play mimics its teenage charges in not feeling fully-formed, it clearly draws on a variety of influences. There is a coming-of-age feel to the narrative, exploring that awkward transition between childhood and becoming a young adult where the mind and the imagination feel streets ahead of the body. The girls frequently think and talk about sex, love and their changing physiology  in the down-time between sessions, but while they cringe and giggle about it, their bodies are far from ready for such adult experiences. Barron shows us this confusion in a striking scene from the middle of the play as three of the girls are shown simultaneously at home, one washing her blood-stained tights, one exploring her sexual responses and one still playing with toy horses.

Barron also explores this progress into adulthood through referenced to their increasingly competitive interactions with one another, belying the idea of them as a team, as well as their perception of the play’s unseen men. Ashlee (Kayla Meikle) has a forceful monologue in which she becomes increasingly aware of the male gaze appraising her 13-year old body and the defiance she feels she has to subdue. Likewise, as the pressure to win increases, the girls move seamlessly from congratulating each other’s successes to accusations of selfishness and arrogance, adopting cut-throat behaviours that signal the end of childhood. There’s even one nicely-handled flash-forward a decade on, as Connie (Manjinder Virk) celebrates her lasting friendship with Ashlee and the deep troubles they have shared in the ensuing years.

While old Broadway song and dance shows have been a nostalgic feature of the West End in recent years, with 42nd Street and An American in Paris among the revivals that have won plenty of plaudits, the roots of Clare Barron’s short play are actually in independent film, and it is here, rather than the stage, that the world of dancers, competition and ambition have been more purposefully explored. By merging examples of competitive dance with the behind-the-scenes locker-room drama of six girls and one boy on the cusp of adulthood, characters reveal their inner selves directly to the audience while participating in the rituals and rivalries of teenage life. Barron’s approach is reminiscent of the satirical documentary-style films such as I, Tonya, Best in Show and Strictly Ballroom that are driven by competition and the financial or talent barriers to individual ambition.

There is a purposefully grubby, unpolished look to Samal Blak’s design that picks out an underfunded and slightly careworn space. The rotating mirror and glitter curtained panels are just that bit too well used, the glass warped and stained, while Moritz Junge’s costume design for the competitor outfits have a cheap glitz, evoking the soulless conference rooms and halls where these events take place, dressed-up but tacky and a bit bleak. So much of that aesthetic is realistically drawn from the various documentaries we’ve seen on American child beauty pageants or the  “mockumentary” film referenced above.

But there’s also an influence from the teen movies about preparing for a finale competition where the central narrative focuses on the protagonists’ will to win, and the various impediments they must overcome to triumph. The Pitch Perfect series is a prime example but also either version of Hairspray and even High School Musical, essentially anything in which the cast grapple with personal development issues while artistically competing for some kind of unifying end goal. Barron’s characters and scenario are deliberately less glamorous than these big screen examples, but the underlying desire to explore the confusing search for identity and future purpose is certainly the same.

Where Dance Nation fails is in bringing all of these strands together in a meaningful and dramatically satisfying way. There is a lot happening in Barron’s production which manages to be both engaging and alienating at the same time, without quite resolving the dilemma it creates by attempting to wrap a philosophical discussion in a narrative frame. The scenes focused on the dance competition, rehearsals and locker-room interaction feel much stronger than the rest of the play, unified by the need to move the story along while exploring the perspectives of its young teenage protagonists. When Barron focuses on character, she creates plenty of meaningful exchanges, loaded with empathy that bring the audience into the story as we are asked to weigh-up the difficulty of supporting the morale of the whole team while creating space for Amina to achieve her potential, even if it means trampling on her friends.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer from earlier this year, this production is on shakier ground when it branches into the surreal or makes jarring attempts to deliver its feminist messages – those messages are visible in the rest of the play and could have been better woven into the central story. Barron wants to experiment with technique and spotlight individual characters, allowing them to talk directly to the audience outside of the core story. This is a way to draw attention to the writer’s purpose and to help the audience to connect with the experience being presented, but here they feel like digressions, like another show trying to break-out from the middle.

Ashlee’s monologue about objectification, intelligence and the power she feels lies ahead of her is a great speech, it’s truthful, impassioned and inspiring, but it’s not clear enough how it applies to the wider team competition story Barron is telling. Young women are sexualised and taught to judge themselves from an early age, but this needs to be reflected properly in the main plot to underscore Ashlee’s concerns, to show the audience that in practice this happens to these girls in how they’re asked to dress, the make-up they have to wear and the suggestive dance moves choreographed by their male teacher. But Barron doesn’t draw the inference through the show, so this becomes an untethered monologue.

Likewise, a (presumed) fantasy sequence in which the new dance first becomes overtly erotic and then turns into a cannibalistic horror-film equally makes no sense in the overall piece, nor does the final section chant which attempts empowerment and respect for the female body. Again, as a stand-alone sections, choreographed by Aline David, they could be interesting but their relation to the consuming nature of dance, the outcomes of the story we’re being told and the imagination of teenage girls is much more obscure and makes for a frustratingly uneven experience.

Dance Nation has a pleasingly diverse cast, including actors with a broad age range, where each convincingly plays a teenage character and collectively create a group dynamic in which the individuals must work together. There’s a fine balance between the last flourish of childishness and young girls wanting to convey an impression of being older, more mature than they are which comes across really well in all the performances. The dance sequences, like the visual design, are purposefully a little blocky and after an opening number that feels like a memory – evoking something of The Entertainer and the flashback sequences from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – the subsequent choreography is designed to amuse with the deadly seriousness with which the team perform balanced against their overall lack of finesse.

With the plot and the message occasionally pulling the play’s construction in different directions, there is less time to fully explore the character traits and experiences that Barron introduces, leaving plenty of interesting ideas unexplored. Some fair better than others and Karla Crome’s Amina has the most to do in exploring the isolating consequence of genuine talent that separates her from the rest of the group and her best friend ZuZu. Crowe’s earnest delivery feels just right for a young woman, notably given less time for non-dance activities, struggling to fit in but unable to downplay her abilities.

As Zuzu, Ria Zmitrowicz is a shy and occasionally sulky presence, a girl desperate to do well but with less talent than she would like. There is a subplot here about whether talent is innate or can be shaped with the right mentor, but Zmitrowicz emphasises the growing disillusion with dance, a dreaming loner with some difficult years of self-discovery ahead. By contrast Virk’s Connie is more confident but her centrality to the Gandhi dance is soon side-lined in favour of other stories, and we’re only given one tantalising psychological insight as she returns to an empty house – do her parents not care, do they disapprove, or have they just forgotten? Teasing these circumstances out would give us more insight into why Connie’s is so keen to dance.

Not all the characters are permitted a homelife and Miranda Foster offers a series of sketches as three ‘Dance Moms’, ZuZu’s pushy former dancer, Luke’s cosy mother and Maeve’s supportive parent, but it’s not clear what point Barron wants to make. Among the rest of the characters Sarah Hadland’s Sofia is the most interested in her developing body, while Nancy Crane’s Maeve is still more child than young woman. While they have interesting conversations and represent particular issues, they don’t feel entirely complete.

The male dynamic is also rather underdeveloped. Apart from Irfan Shamji’s Luke who is the only boy in the dance troupe which is barely referenced, Dance Teacher Pat is a highly ambiguous character but not in the way he could be. Brendan Cowell presents a complex figure who pushes the team to perform, a believer in tough-love but why he’s teaching and his overall role in the story is less clear. Barron doesn’t make him a predator – neither of the male characters is designed to reflect the issues she raises in Ashlee’s monologue – but nor does he really act as a catalyst for the events that unfold.

Dance Nation is a bit of a strange beast, a play that mixes straightforward dramatic narrative with more disruptive techniques but doesn’t quite marry the two aspects successfully. Like Against last year, a little more development time may have resolved some of these issues, helping to align the story arc with deeper characterisation to create a clearer picture of the complicated transition into womanhood. With plenty of influences from across film, there’s still a lot to take from Barron’s play, and as annual dance fever arrives in the UK once again and mingles with a year of female-led stories, Dance Nation is timely if not quite a ten from Len.

Dance Nation is at the Almeida Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1 and Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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