Tag Archives: Three Sisters

New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.

Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.

Location and Staging

Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.

Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.

Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.

Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.

Character Psychology

The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.

The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.

Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.

The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.

But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.

And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.

Uncle Vanya was due to play until 2 May and The Seagull until 30 May. Three Sisters ended in February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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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