Three Sisters

Royal Exchange Theatre

By Rashdash

After Chekhov

Three Sisters is the latest show from multi-award winning Rashdash and is co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre with whom they are Associate Artists. This is a gutsy and vibrant challenging of the narrative conventions of the classics in theatre. In taking a play by Chekhov and experimenting with the form Rashdash are exploring who the classics are aimed at. Do they still have a relevance in theatre today? Who gets what from them and in what’s ways can we alter them to continue to get something powerful and enduring from them?

Why do the men in this play have all of the lines?

Rashdash rip up the script, burn the frumpy black dresses, bare their maidenly breasts, crank up the volume on the piano and add some strings and drums. This is Chekhov in a mash up with Vivienne Westwood and The Slits. This is sexy, vibrant, caustic and clever. Packing a hefty feminist punch and some serious theatrical clout while also remaining playful and whimsical, Three Sisters is truly a thing of joy from start to finish.

These three sisters are not muted and still. They are not passive Barbie dolls but are Action girls in crinolines. There are no sepia tones to this production, instead there is a kaleidoscope of colour. There are frequent moments where tableau scenes are staged then fractured and fragmented as the performers hold up a prism to see women as so much more than pliable, passive vessels to be moulded by male writers into their version of womanhood. These women are messy, imperfect, funny, clever and complex. They have mastered social media as well as the piano. They are cultured and educated with their own opinions, and can also cry in a supermarket and “dance it out” like they’re on Greys Anatomy. They own their own bodies and wear whatever they choose, if they strip off on stage it is their decision and has a function rather than being sexualised. They wear comfy knickers, will massage their perineums with olive oil to avoid tearing in childbirth and will rail against the passage of time as a slow, slow bastard cunt!

Performance is meshed with music,song and movement so there is always a sense of flux and change. Even in moments where there is a static snapshot of stillness there will be music or the movement of a statue or the TICKTOCK digital display flashing. Nothing stays the same. The scenes are constantly shifting as the pile of disguarded clothing gets bigger as if to say plays like bodies can be dressed or styled in an endless array of guises. The nod to Shakespeare in some of the fashion choices is a witty reminder of just how many of our classic plays were written by men and are now being revisited from a female perspective- most recently Othello at Liverpool’s Everyman.

Rashdash are all accomplished musicians and with the addition of Chloe Rianna on drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on violin and synth, they move through a range of styles from classical to trippy, punk and blues. The soundscape is as varied as the costumes and the women on stage. Olga Helen Goalen, Masha Abbi Greenland and Irena Becky Willie all sing, and they all deliver whether alluding to mainstream pop Adele and Katy Perry or spitting out a punk lyric or belting out a torch song. The lyrics are mercilessly clever, and often wickedly funny. All three deliver strong performances that have an essence of each sister.

This production works across enough levels to be a success whether you know the original or not. A Chekhov aficionado will get the references to their mother’s broken clock or the spinning top given to Irena. They will see the irony of Olga idly wishing she was more able to do something about homelessness when of course the sisters are about to lose their family home. Whereas fresh eyes see a topical issue being raised that they have probably walked past on their way to the theatre. The haze of smoke alludes to the nearby town on fire but could just as easily refer to Grenfell Towers. Masha can be a modern woman dealing with heartbreak by swiping Tinder or a sister in an unhappy marriage seeking solace within an army garrison.

Moments on stage such as Masha reading out multiple reviews of the original play or being literally squashed by volumes of the classics poke fun at our obsession with the relative safety of tradition in theatre while reminding us of the need for joyfully subversive new works. Rashdash pull back the curtains and fill the stage with fresh air and new opportunities. Three Sisters can challenge existing lovers of the classics and bring new vibrant audiences to look at established works. The Royal Exchange Theatre is currently also showing The Cherry Orchard on it’s main stage. Like a beautifully deconstructed cheesecake on Masterchef Three Sisters is a brilliant take on the original classic.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 3rd -19th May

The Yard, London 22 May – 9 June

Tobacco Factory, Bristol 12 -16 June

Images by Richard Davenport

The Cherry Orchard

royal exchange theatre - harry oliver (grisha) - the cherry orchard-1848559962..jpgRoyal Exchange Theatre

By Anton Chekhov

Translation by Rory Mullarkey

Directed by Michael Boyd

Rory Mullarkey and Michael Boyd are the first Russian speaking Translator/Director team to pool their skills and mutual love of Chekhov to create a new British translation of The Cherry Orchard since Michael Frayn in the Eighties. The result is a success that retains and celebrates the comedic elements while also balancing the tragedy and loss from the past with the fears and hopes of a dawning new age. Little actually happens in this play but it is always engrossing as obvious outcomes and solutions are evaded in favour of unsolved problems and enigmas. Chekhov was a doctor as well as a writer and in this, his last play there are acute observations of the human condition but no diagnosis.

The most striking element of Tom Piper’s design for this production is the starkness of the set. Apart from a few falling blossoms the audience are left to imagine the lush white blooms in an orchard that is the one remarkable thing in this entire province. The once grand house is also left to the imagination as the set is a huge expanse of bare wooden floor, a single chair an occasional table and a hundred year old bookcase. The wooden floor dominates as if it hints at what will become of the soon to be felled cherry trees. It is like a blank canvas awaiting a fresh start having probably been stripped of its plush furnishings to meet the mounting debts. When Uncle Leonid makes an impassioned speech to the bookcase it is both ridiculous and poignant as it represents the grandeur of a fast diminishing lifestyle.

Despite the bareness of the stage this is a production that is full of imagery and references to colour. The orchard is the white of Lyubov’s girlish summer gown, the white of torn up telegrams, and old money. The white of a ghostly balloon moon and of innocence and purity. The blacks and greys of duty, servility and squashed hope is there in Firs’ uniform and Vavara’s drab clothing. The cherry pink of Lyubov’s velvet dress is the pink of ripened sexuality and the cherry jam of yesteryear. The yellow gold of Lopakhin’s polished shoes alluding to the brassy nature of new money. The casting choices also make a provocative colour statement about history of slaves/serfs and masters. All the family in the house are white actors while the staff or children of serfs are all actors from other ethnicities. Emma Cains also cleverly uses the trajectory of the costumes styling to reflect the move from the past towards a new age and new freedoms.

There are some especially strong performances with Kirsty Bushell as Madame Lyubov deftly portraying the fragility of a woman seared by grief whose party girl approach to heartache keeps her constantly on the move like a beautiful butterfly. This is a woman whose husband died of champagne while her little son Grisha drowned on the estate a mere six months later. Seemingly careless and insouciant she flirts and flits around giving out gold to strangers when she is about to lose her family home. If kisses were roubles this family would be debt free. At moments when her gaiety fractures Bushell is raw with tangible pain. The scene where Grisha is on the chaise longue beautifully captures the fractures in Lyubov’s life -a mother mourning at her son’s funeral wake bleeds into a riotous house party. Rosy McEwen as the disappointed and disillusioned Vavara is as pale and luminous as the haunting moon. The restraint and delicacy of her performance is beautifully balanced as she yearns to be both a wife and a nun. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is a seamless blend of arrogant new money and success with hints of an awkward lovelorn son of a serf. A self made man who is rightly proud of his achievements yet is tongue tied and paralyzed to speak his feelings.

The threads of the past, present and future are ever present. Ancient butler Firs can only remember the past but will be the last living soul in this house. The child haunts the house in timeless fashion observing everything silently. New love affairs begin, old ones may start again and some remain as simply frustrated yearnings. Chekhov throws up possibilities like blossom petals and this production casts them up in the air with real love and delicacy.

Royal Exchange Theatre 19 April-19th May

Images Seamus Ryan

Uncle Vanya

HOME 

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Andrew Lipton 

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Uncle Vanya was written 20 years before The Russian Revolution of 1917 and may depict a long gone era, however the themes of depression, regrets and obsessional love are timeless. The uncertainties and frailties of human emotion are all on display and are beautifully depicted in this adaptation.

The set by Steffi Wurster is vast so the home setting dwarves the characters. The walls extend up to encompass everything and everyone, effectively creating a sense of claustrophobia. The raised piano ensures that the comfort of music remains out of reach for Yelena. The sense of decay and gloom seeps out of the walls. Even a garden scene plays out within the gloom of the house. There is literally no escape for Vanya and Sonya. The estate dominates everything as both prison, and home and hearth. 

The key human emotions of Anger, Fear, Joy and Sadness are all evoked in subtle ways. The layers of each performance ensure that each character is defined and memorable. There is always a sense of fatalism here and human curiosity about how each character chooses to respond. The emotion connection with the audience becomes truly intimate when characters  address us as though personally sharing with us one to one. 

The Professor is a man whose success and potency is fast waning and the only new challenges he faces are illness and death. Nick Hodder’s Vanya brilliantly evokes a man who has given up in body and spirit. He is only 47 but feels his life is not only over but has never really started. The tragicomedic outcome of his brief reach for love and hope is  perfectly pitched. In contrast Jason Merrells gives Astrov vitality and curiosity which lifts the gloomy house. He imbues new thinking and change yet is born too soon to really make a difference for himself. Despite their differences neither man is likely to get the future they crave and will continue to exist rather than thrive.

The older women seem stoic and content in their roles within the house. The younger female characters are similarly trapped by the social norms. Hana Yannas is perfect cast as a beautiful and brittle trophy wife full of longing and repressed energy. She is mystified at the possibility of breaking free and having love and passion rather than wifely duty and social position. Katie West is luminous on stage, her Sonya is an innocent and it is her sense of hope in an weary old world that holds everyone together. Her physical plainness is viewed as an obstacle to love and passion so she is as equally thwarted as Yelena. She remains unseen by Vaskov despite being a good match for the middle aged doctor. The tragic irony that both her and Vaskov would rather have nothing if not a great love, and therefore both are likely to get nothing. She is at peace in a spiritual way, resigned to a life of duty and tending to the needs of others rather than fulfilling her own desires in her earthly life.

The ephemeral nature of love and hope seem to dictate that emotional survival comes from taking solace in solid things like food, vodka, work or nature. In Uncle Vanya we see all too painfully what may be the outcome from missed opportunities or possibilities not acted upon. If only Vanya had seized his moment with Yelena 10 years earlier or if Astrov was more of a pragmatist than a dreamer then Sonya would have a very different life. The  invitation in this production is Seize the Day for each day is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Fri 3Sat 25 Nov at HOME