Young Vic, 12 October 2012
Sisters having fun (Young Vic trailer) ie no relation to Three Sisters whatever
The biography of Chekhov in the programme / translated text tells us that his dramas were so ahead of their time even the great Stanislawski, his contemporary, struggled to direct them. This implies we have caught up with Chekhov, that we know how his dramas should ‘go’ now.
I think this misunderstands his astonishing achievement. Far from being ahead of its time, Three Sisters is as close to a realist novel – the pre-eminent nineteenth century art form – as can be realised on a stage.
Chekhov has sympathy for every character, and more importantly can make us feel the same sympathy, creating an almost unbearable sense of identification with their unhappiness. This is regardless of how petty they seem – I see myself reflected in them all, somehow.
And pettiness is the overriding feeling, even over the characters’ other negative traits such as idleness, self-loathing, or self-regard. The worthlessness of these lives, acutely felt by various characters, is the most painful aspect of it all, and provides the effect of great tragedy without the usual accompaniments of a grand historical setting, or a gunshot.
The text achieves this novelistic effect through some devices that present difficulties for the director and actors. In an actual novel, an author can focus on one character at a time, and we ignore the others, even if they are supposed to be in the same room. But we cannot ignore actors on a stage. When Chekhov moves the spotlight from one character to the next, as it were, the other actors need to be doing something.
And when actors fully engage with the situation, as Vanessa Kirby did, to gut-wrenching effect, when Masha realises she is trapped with her husband, it can be jarring to have the sisters almost immediately afterward start talking in the abstract.
This grating, dissonant effect recurs in Benedict Andrew's adaptation and production at the Young Vic. Before addressing his faults, I should stress the director achieves wonders with his cast. This results in the awe and awfulness of a tragedy, and it does seem unfair to ask for more.
But the overall concept does not match the acting. A white space, with a mound of dirt at the back, a set comprised of desks upon which the actors walk and which is slowly whittled away in the second half, as the drama reaches its conclusion. I felt the characters were in purgatory, but this encourages a sense that the characters are ciphers, in an abstract place, rather than real people in a real society.
This feeling of displacement was strengthened when the whole cast singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Having even the elderly nanny join in suggests a deliberate attempt to highlight the unreality of what we’re watching, whether or not you share my intense dislike of the song.
No reason to end on a sour note – with acting this good, Three Sisters is indestructible.