When approaching Chekhov, the big question is this: are his plays funny, or tragic? On a rare trip to Bedlam Theatre, I was curious to see how the EUTC had tackled this tricky issue in The Three Sisters. As director Sara Cemin said of the play, it is “the classic every actor dreams of starring in and every director dreads putting on.”
In fact the humour came through pretty well, if not perhaps for the right reasons. Chekhov famously wrangled with Stanislavski over actors being too ‘theatrical,’ and this production had that tendency, with a lot of high-camp and over-acting bordering on the absurd.
Notable in this were the characters Ferapont and Anfisa (Evan Bayton, Jess Dullingham) who were silly and slightly silly respectively. Rodé and Fedotic (Franziska Baumeister, Liyana Ahmed) had some kind of Tweedle Dum/Tweedle Dee thing going on, including crazy dancing, and obvious miming with instruments.
Two other actors better managed to bring out humour through characterisation without over-doing it: Kulygin and Chebutykin (Theo MacDonald, Teddy Fahey.) In the case of the latter, the drunken scene was sensibly understated.
Comment should be made on the actors playing the eponymous sisters – Maya Sargent, Erin Bushe, and Judith Gottesman – who each brought enough gravitas to their parts to save the play from too much farce. This is a hard play to pull off, simply because it is so weird. The tragedy is that none of the characters really get anywhere – least of all to their beloved Moscow – and the sense of uselessness pervades the play.
The only actor who gets to develop in character is Natasha. Scarlett Stitt had plenty to play with in this respect, but her transition from wallflower in Act One to total bully by Act Four was too far. In Act Two she played Natasha as a bully, but not too scary, which seemed the right pitch, but by Act Three, stomping across the stage with her candle like a character from Absolutely Fabulous was the sort of over-statement that Chekhov tried to stem in Stanislavski’s actors.
If this was due to the direction, I will take a step back since this was Cemin’s first production. Ambitious, indeed! With such a big cast, good use was made of the large playing-space and, aside from the dining table, the stage rarely felt cluttered. With the table shoved far stage-right, there were some issues with blocking, but it suited the minimal set. Less is always more.
Likewise, using a whitened backdrop with, between acts, large coloured shapes stuck to the wall with Velcro, while a little time-consuming it gave a minimalistic yet striking effect, with a nod to Suprematism.
Sara Cemin explained to me that these colours and shapes symbolised “order, harmony, disorder, and finally a new found order” in each act. This seemed appropriate, but whether the audience got this is hard to say.
The other tricky point is the archaic language, which didn’t always flow, and in this respect affected the overall pace. Sometimes it felt in act one that we were watching a buffering video; while in other places actors stepped on each other’s lines, or were too quick to come in after audience laughter. Perhaps they weren’t expecting such reaction!
Most unexpected of all was the finale, which took the absurdist, nihilistic reading of the work to another level. After the doomed duel between Solyoni and Tuzenbakh (William Nye, Ewan Bruce) our miming instrumentalists return. This time, instead of synthesized Bach or Chopin, we get the cheesy sounds of Paolo Conti’s guitar-strumming and chromatic piano melodies while the entire cast comes on stage to sing along to his song, Sparring Partner. As if this wasn’t jolting enough, even Tuzenbakh returns (ie, from the dead) with his head spattered in blood, and joins in the singing and miming.
For all its ridiculousness, it worked because it had enough tongue-in-cheek. After all, the sisters’ negligible reaction to their tragic existence is almost risible. Overall, this was an entertaining production, and since two hours’ worth of Chekhov isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun evening, it seemed to find the right approach.