Thursday 27 September 2012

Three Sisters – Young Vic

[long overdue. apologies. experiment in trying to review production by writing about the actors.]

Benedict Andrews's production of Three Sisters at the Young Vic is brilliant. Let's just say that now.

It manages to combine a clean, moderate version of that German “director's theatre” aesthetic with some of the best sorts of British (/anglophone) acting going. Played on Johannes Schütz's gorgeous minimalist set – a thrust stage made from umpteen matte grey, waist-high tables beneath a matte-black-framed, shallow, white box ceiling; all before a small mound of earth – it is at once clinical and warm; like getting tipsy on surgical spirit.

The cast are dressed in modern clothes, which still hint at the correct period. There are small disruptions of – or supplements to – the literal, naturalistic reality: characters putting on garish animal-themed face-masks; Kulygin and Olga return from a staff meeting at the school wearing fancy-dress animal costumes; the first “scene change” plays Pussy Riot while jets of snow briefly coat the small upstage mound of earth. But at root this is a very pure production of the play. Andrews's spare version of the script is as stark as the staging, and the best English translation of the play since Chris Goode's.

What's fascinating here is how much in the service of the play each of this devices is. In no way is this production a challenge to the text. It is a reading, certainly – in the way that all stagings of every play are – but, in truth, it's a very traditional reading. Were one so minded, one could perhaps grumble that the elements pressed into play here almost come to signify less than themselves by virtue of their co-option. But that would be to overlook how hard they also resonate within the frame of the play itself. The real star of the show here is the cast, however.

It starts with Anfisa (Ann Queensbury) sitting and listening to the radio while the three sisters work. Thanks perhaps to the unusual way it opens – the sisters are all sitting at various sides of the tables that make up the thrust stage so no one dominates the playing area at first – one's eye is as drawn to her as the “principles”. And there is something remarkable and detailed about just this simple action of sitting and listening. A picture telling a story.

There's another lovely moment early on when Orion Ben as an unnamed maid standing in line with other “minor” characters happens to just turn an look as another character in reaction to something someone says. It's just a little reaction shot, and yet it completely crystallises the relationship the servants have to their master and mistresses.

Similarly Harry Dickman's Ferapoint, a thankless bit-part of a man, is turned into a lovely doddery, comic turn, with oversize, thick glasses and an endearing hapless, old-aged hard-of-hearing-ness. At one point Andrey uses his presence to rant about his lot in life. When he's finished the old man asks: “What did you say? My hearing.” Andrey replies “If your hearing was good I wouldn't be talking to you.” It's a good joke. What makes it beautiful is the way that you feel for both of them in that moment.

If there's an element that usually trips British Chekhov up, though, it's usually the way that we map our obsession with class onto his deceptively similar-looking but temperamentally-different terrain. It is through this knowledge that we can view with gratitude Paul Rattray's Solony. Rattray is perhaps most well known for his lengthy tour of duty in Blackwatch. And here again he's another chippy, hard, Scottish soldier. There's a sort of steely look that feels disctinctly Scottish, a kind of squint that suggests both perpetual-underdog and a victorious arrogance all at once.

Perhaps the real brilliance here is in his pairing with Sam Troughton's Tuzenbach. Often, we see Tuzenbach's aristocratic roots, perhaps also his oft denied German heritage, over-played. We're used, perhaps, to a sort of Boris Johnson figure of fun. A comedy posho whom we cannot take seriously. Or else a romantic, doomed aristo. Troughton is none of these things. Or rather none in excess. Sure, Tuzenbach is slightly absurd, slightly, painfully doomed. Sure, his adoration of Irina, in this version as much as any other, is never going to end well for him. But here we have the situation simply stated and not endlessly overplayed. The Count (Baron?) does love Irina hopelessly, as much as Solony loves her violently and unreasonably. The mutual antipathy between the two men hangs thickly in the air between them, not over-manifested in some ancient Celtic resentment of the landed gentry, but like the atmosphere that enters a room where two personalities perpetually clash.

Though in command of both these men Vershinin (William Houston) seems to live in another world altogether. Oddly, I haven't knowingly seen Houston in anything since the RSC Troilus and Cressida from '99. I've seen him mentioned in dispatches from more recent outings at Stratford in the past decade, though, and he now sounds like he's spent ten years soaking in a vat of that company's Voice Department. As such, Vershinin runs closest to doing a bunch of stuff that I'm really not over-keen on actors doing. There was a point where I realised that the performance was irresistably reminding me of Douglas Renholm from The IT Crowd. And once thought, it was a hard image to displace. However, at the same time, it doesn't just feel like an actor in a different production. You get the sense that he could easily do it different, and instead, the great big, amazing, old-school, Olivier voice is a character choice for Houston the actor. There's something about the big oaky disconnect between life as it is usually spoken and Vershinin's interior world that seems to make sense of the performance. Teetering, in the world of the play, between being a preposterous ham and the plausible, cultured, charming romantic and crucially Muscovite man for whom Masha falls.

Vanessa Kirby has apparently been on TV. As such, a bit too much of the pre-publicty for the show did seem to focus on interviews with her of the “She wafts into the room, everyone stares” school. It is important to remember that she didn't ask anyone to write like an idiot about her.

But we can ignore all that because Kirby is genuinely brilliant. Primarily, she's brilliant because she's very funny and, without being “meta-”, very self-aware. She also pins down more than any other woman I've seen on stage precisely her class of posh-but-not-that-posh- girls in their early twenties. The ironic twangs, the questiony inflections, the sometimes mid-Atlantic borrowed speech patterns, The whole postmodern accent mash-up that references everything from patois to Patsy (AbFab). She's also brilliant because she's plainly not afraid to play Masha as an utter cunt. Self-involved to the point of callous, cruel and uncaring, and yet richly sentimental and capable of appalling feeling – the moment when she realises she has lost Vershinin forever, the howl, the breakdown, the sheer snot and mess of it all is something else.

But the performance does not exist in isolation. Her other counter-point, Adrian Schiller's Kulygin also avoids the pitfall of comic caricature and, as such, makes richer the portrayal of the horrible gulf in the marriage between Kulygin and Masha. Because we can see the vestiges of a perfectly nice, small-scale ambitious, intelligent guy here. And we see how much just that small-scale thinking grates on Masha, and in turn, how it grating on her panics him, making him more needy, more desperate, less attractive. The eternal vicious circle of a failed and unequal relationship, where someone loves someone else who is gradually growing to despise them. That this is all readable in the smallest of gestures, body-language and even perhaps costumes design – the way his gunmetal blue bomber jacket compares with her slightly cheaply provincial, but still effortfully glamorous lacy tops – reveals yet more of the intricacy and depth of the thinking behind the production.

It is striking, what with Andrews being an Australian, that he makes the biggest outcast in the Prozorov household, Natasha (Emily Barclay), an Aussie. Until I started reading a couple of Australian theatre blogs, I had no idea of the extent to which the Australian's perceive a total lack of respect for them from the British. I wonder if this casting by Andrews is intended to reflect that, and I wonder if it resonates more strongly for him and Barclay than it will for anyone British in the cast or audience (since I really don't think the theatre-going British really think anything in particularly snobby about Australia. I mean, Nick Cave's Australian. End of).

Barclay inhabits the role to perfection, however. So much of Natasha's character is either reported by other characters or in her behaviour, that I would argue that her actual social class doesn't even necessarily matter. It's the sisters' treatment of her, of her-and-Andrey's burgeoning romance, and then her subsequent transformation into a semi-monster – lording it up over the sisters and their servants, while carrying on an affair with the leader of the council, under her husband's nose – that matters.

And while all this is perhaps stated more plainly than other relationships – we see her dashing out of the house to meet her lover dressed in a fur coat, high heels and a nightie; we see her fretfully carrying a baby alarm/intercom about with her everywhere; we see her padding softly through rooms carrying only candle looking for all the world like Lady Macbeth (Not the only Shakespeare quotation in this theatre-literate production – elsewhere __ declares “The Rest is Silence”, recalling Chekhov's obvious love of W.S. – cf. Ivanov).

Interestingly, there is a self-containment to this Natasha. The Otherness, her lack of belonging to any class – thinking herself better than the servants and being picked on as “less than” the Prozorovs – and the myriad motifs which float around her all give a sense that there was never any real connection between her and Andrey. An impression brilliantly fostered by Danny Kirrane's performance.

Kirrane was last seen (by me) in Ella Hickson's Boys (about which I wrote plenty here) playing an overweight tragic sad-sack. He fact that he's playing more or less exactly the same sort of character here did make me initially uncomfortable. I find the idea of a kind of biological determinism in casting a deeply ugly spectacle. The idea that someone's physical appearance plays a meaningful part in their destiny strikes me as pretty much counter to everything progressive I believe. So, yeah, having Kirrane as a slightly big bloke doomed to be dumped on by life again didn't sit comfortably.

Thing is, Chekhov is no Ella Hickson. Here we see everything that (was it "Benny" in Boys?) could have been. Yes, Andrey's still dumped on, but in Three Sisters *everyone* is being dumped on. It's be weird if some of the shit flying around didn't stick to someone. So rather than being presented with a sad-sack with no agency we get a present actor feeling their way through to their character's end-point in the play. And Kirrane is an excellent actor. Nimble, ironic, and very funny. Not a one-note depressive, but a mercurial tumble of diffidence, anger, reserve and excess.

Interestingly – much more interestingly than Natasha's Australian-ness – Kirrane pretty much hangs on to his (Yorkshire? Lancashire?) accent, and it's not really used as any kind of index of class, or anything else. Perhaps in part this could be down to Andrews's lack of know-how when it comes to the intricacies of the British tradition of putting people in a pigeon-hole within ten second of them opening their mouths, but the effect feels more continental than that – that the reason Kirrane is playing Andrey is essentially down to talent and spirit rather than looks and accent. He's got a slightly world-weary-before-his-time demeanour which gives Andrey a lovely kind of crumpled gravitas that you don't when having him played as the whiney, picky, student loser of other productions.

Also a revelation is Michael Feast's Chebutykin. I mean, sure, we know Michael Feast is a Great Actor. He was good in Rupert Goold's Macbeth, and I saw him in a lovely close-up performance of something otherwise forgetable at Theatre 503. It says something that I didn't even recognise him until I looked at the programme at half time. True, he's grown a beard, but he's also doing some serious acting here. Where I'd (naïvely) suggest that most of the other performers are pretty much inhabiting the characters as if they were versions of themselves, Feast – unless he's been being someone else in every other performance I've seen, which also seems plausible – has made up an entire set of characteristics for himself here, and lives them with utter conviction.

Conversely, in this Three Sisters, Olga (played by David Tennant's Hamlet's Ophelia, Mariah Gale) seems to do very little. She succeeds almost by functioning as an absence. Totally in keeping with her position as an unmarried schoolteacher who has all but given up on any hopes of getting married, nurses a secret love for __, and whose face seems to weather and harden as the years mount up through the play. She doesn't have a big moment, she never seems to say anything world-shattering, and it's this play of incremental defeat that totally defines her character and presence on stage. In it's way, it is the most generous performance of the night – letting others shine more noticeably in the pale light of Olga's failures.

Gala Gordon's Irina, by contrast, is problematic to a (/this heterosexual, male) critic in the exact opposite way to Danny Kirrane's Andrey is. That is to say, Gordon is distractingly beautiful. A kind of cross between Juliette Binoche and Bambi. Huge brown eyes, an appallingly attractive mouth. Exactly the sort of thing you don't want to read a middle-aged man writing about. But (bear with me here, this isn't mere objectification), that's part of the key to how this Irina works. Several characters are entranced by her. Sure, it's a bit literal-minded to actually have someone arrestingly beautiful play someone arrestingly beautiful, but it does have the effect of demonstrating to the audience where those characters are coming from. As such, Irina's slightly sappy sentimental version of work: “The only thing that matters is work... It's the only thing that gives life any meaning, any purpose, any chance of happiness.”

Granted, this innocence and virtue of this is, on one level, true. And I imagine Chekhov – apparently a master of seeing every side of an argument and its drawbacks all at once – knew this. But at the same time, putting these sentiments in the mouth of a privileged provincial rich-kid must have also been deliberately grating. Thanks to Gordon's guilelessness, we at least see the earnestness and sincerity of Irina's beliefs while being able to feel how annoying they might be to others in the world of the play, but thanks to her doe-eyes, we also understand why the otherwise resentful Solony is smitten rather than spoiling for a fight.

Last, and not least are Gruffudd Glyn and Richard Pryal playing two soldiers Fedotik and Rodé. Neither has more than a handful of the most functional lines (that I remember), but they do also provide the basis for some of the most exciting moments in the play – arriving toward the close of the first half in giant clown-heads with guitar and (balalaika? ukulele?) for the rendition first of some 12-bar blues, and then, at the drunk Tuzenbach's instigation, the hair-on-neck-raising rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit as a kind of drunken singalong folk song.

And that's the production. A beautiful set, dismantled during the second half, and some of the best performances currently available in London running through this ever-older play like it was finished just before the Olympics. At once, not trying to say anything noticeably huge or meta- about the world, but somehow pinning down so much that seems true and funny and sad about it.


Anonymous said...

great review. great production. Just want to mention that Natasha is Kiwi, not Aussie.

Andrew Haydon said...

Rats. There goes a perfectly good paragraph of social comment. Hey ho. Will amend properly in the morning.

Alison Croggon said...

Lol. Although whether Barclay is NZ or Australian, the colonial commentary would still pertain. If I am one of the bloggers you mean, what riles me is not so much lack of respect as Eurocentric ignorance, and it's certainly not confined to theatre - poetry in English is generally assumed to exist in the US and Britain and nowhere else. Typically it's an assumption, as Howard Jacobson reportedly said at a panel on theatre here where a colleague was a co-panelist, that Australian culture is English because we speak English and that's the end of that. (With that assumption goes the idea that Australian work is a less significant copy of what goes on elsewhere). Apparently that panel ended in a riot, with the chair banging his head on the microphone. As with Beno's Three Sisters, I wish I had been there.

Chris said...

Hi Alison, I'm British and I want to say that I'm pretty certain that I'm not alone in thinking that the best poet in English currently alive is Australian.

Jana P said...

That is a fantastic review, Andrew: I don't know how much Andrews has been shown in the UK (a lot in Australia, of course), but it is very interesting to read your reading of his reading of the play. One of the most interesting things about theatre is seeing what other people see, how they understand cultural artefacts. When this is illuminated and articulated, like in your review, it is a genuinely enlightening experience.

Just a note to Alison - not 'Eurocentric', but 'Anglocentric', perhaps UK-centric. Just as it grates on Australians when someone assumes the English-speakers are all minor variations of the British or the American, so it annoys Europeans enormously when the Anglophones assume that all Europeans are minor variations of the British.

The British know more about Australia than they know, or care, about Lithuania, or Belarus, or Portugal (indeed, one of the running gags on this blog is Andrew's weirdness for liking non-English-language theatre, as if those were real people!). On the other hand, I don't think that the Polish, the Germans, or the Croatian have anything like the same attitude towards Australia as the British. I understand that it might all seem like a minor point from the other side of the world, but so works colonial ignorance. It is not.

In any case, Andrew, I have a question: you spend a lot of time talking about how Andrews does not read class in Chekhov, in contrast to most UK productions. What would you say are his key concerns? I am asking this because I don't think I can see his work with unclouded eyes.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - do you mean Les Murray? I'm talking about general conversation rather than exceptions, and a particular colonialist attitude that can get up people's noses, but which naturally doesn't apply blanket-fashion. Those attitudes are of a piece with a ghastly man I saw on British tv once saying the North ought to be bombed because it was full of poor people. Or Howard Jacobson, come to think of it.

Hi Jana - I take your point: I should have said Anglo culture, rather than Eurocentric. Although, to be fair, England is part of Europe, whether it likes it or not. Attitudes, particularly those I'm talking about, are still informed by Australia being a British colony. I was once abused for being a mere convict on the Guardian site for daring to write about boring Australian culture! Which was pretty funny, actually. But still.

Andrew Haydon said...

"you spend a lot of time talking about how Andrews does not read class in Chekhov, in contrast to most UK productions."

I think I would finesse that to "not reading *British* class onto Chekhov". I mean, the characters in the play still talk about their positions relative to each other in 1900s Russia, I think. It's just not rigorously/slavishly transferred to a specifically British context/milieu.

"What would you say are his key concerns?"

Hmm. If I was going to be flippant, I'd say "to do Three Sisters really well, but in such a way that everyone would give him tonnes of credit for doing so". By which I mean, there doesn't seem to be any political purpose here that doesn't come from what the characters say or the sympathetic (as I read it), account of their emotional journeys.

I dunno if you've seen Frank Castorf's Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! ( but it makes a useful comparison with what Andrews has done (a comparison I would have gone on about in the review if it wasn't already so long), but basically, I think Andrews is giving us a version that's incredibly sympathetic to the text where Castorf's staging is a really sustained attack on it and its subjects (he intercuts Three Sisters with a Chekhov short story about some poor farmers/peasants who *do* get to Moscow and have a thoroughly miserable time - I think his point being to point up how trivial he finds the complaints of the bourgeois Prozerov sisters and co.)

That said, I did find the Castorf tough going (2 1/2 hours *before the interval*) and found this version totally watchable.

(re: Benedict Andrews - three things this year in UK - Big and Small with Cate B. (which I didn't see), and the opera Caligula (which I did, review here). Not sure there have been any previous sightings of his work here. Not by me, at any rate...)

Jana P said...

Interestingly, that work was called 'Gross und Klein' or 'Gross and Klein' in Sydney. I wonder why the change.

Jana P said...

I would agree very much with your summary of Andrews' intentions, which has been my reservation for a long time - not just with Andrews, but the whole genre of young director, if I may generalise a bit, that his influence has created in Australia. It seems to be Ostermeier-lite (and that said, Ostermeier is fairly lite to begin with). It seems to me a lot of this work basically aims at being stylish above and beyond all else. A lot of craft, a lot of good stuff to watch, but in terms of actually saying something, in terms of direction as art, almost never anything much.

And I don't mean that everyone needs to be Frank Castorf. But I just saw this awesome, feminist and Marxist production of Miss Julie by Katie Mitchell at the Schaubühne. I could tell you EXACTLY what she wanted to do there...

Lanz said...

Enlightening as always, Andrew. Thanks for the review. Really bummed you missed Gross und Klein, would have loved your thoughts on what I regarded as such a triumph (speaking of the Barbican, I'm assuming you also missed Mademoiselle Julie?). Also re previous Beno in London, he directed Monteverdi at the Young Vic (via ENO) last year. Shall have to find a way to get to Sydney for Cate and Isabelle this summer (or winter for them, rather)...

I'm wondering what impact you think (if any at all) this production, and/or Andrews' presence in London this year, will have here. What makes his work stand out for me vs. other recent high profile regie-leaning pieces like 3K is that since he works in English (and with actors from the Anglo tradition) it makes the work more palatable/accesible for more conservative audiences. Almost tricking them into accepting a Euro (if "-lite") style. It was heartening to see old folks gleefully applauding at last Saturday's evening performance. Though, of course, the Young Vic audience, whatever age, is more sophisticated anyway and it's not like the production itself goes too far at all.