Chekhov normally evokes images of upper-middle class families, wood-paneled walls, and realism at its best – an insight into the lives of well to-do societies and what goes on behind closed doors. His play Three Sisters, written in 1901, is no exception, depicting Olga, Masha, and Irina, three sisters desperate to return to their childhood home of Moscow, but thwarted by life events, unexpected visitors, and dramatic happenings.
But Australian director Benedict Andrews has other things in mind. In a compelling new version at the Young Vic (literal translation by Helen Rappaport), he presents the traditional story as an explosive, emotional, chaotic depiction of crumbling lives – featuring music throughout the last century, including Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in a somewhat hallucinogenic, intense scene, Andrews’ design (with Johannes Schütz) is simultaneously timeless, and possibly entangled with the post-war euphoria of the 1920s. The stage – a vast area made entirely of square, grey tables – is obscured upstage by a large mound of dirt, which the cast walk across in order to enter or exit the performance area. Suspended above us is a huge light box (James Farncombe), emanating that strange white light that never looks quite natural, but keeps the first few rows of the three-sided seating area in constant view. This ever-present awareness of those around you provides a strangely Brechtian sense of ‘this is a play’ – accompanied by the script on LED screens (being a captioned performance), Chekhov’s tale took on a new dimension, making it all the more poignant for today.
The cast themselves were incredibly strong also, bouncing off Andrews’ inspiring direction and the bizarre but innovative styling. Several in particular caught my attention – the three sisters were all phenomenal, bringing different energies onstage. Mariah Gale (Olga) provided a strong innocence that seemed to calm moments of mayhem and pull both the characters and the audience back into some form of reality; Vanessa Kirby played Masha with a haunting desperation, bringing us with her to the brink of destruction and back again; newcomer Gala Gordon (Irina) ensured the youthfulness of her character was never lost beneath the weighted words and context. Others of note included Paul Rattray, who’s Scottish Solyony was brutal and devastating all at once, and Michael Feast as Chebutykin, the forlorn yet determined old friend.
If you want to see a Chekhov set in icy Russia, with heavy rugs and staged windows, do not come and see this show. But if you want to embrace the ideas and words, engage with the characters, and truly experience Three Sisters as a piece of ingenious theatre, then brace yourself for a performance that will stick with you for a long time.
Three Sisters runs at the Young Vic until the 3rd November.