sat 26/07/2014

Three Sisters, Young Vic | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Three Sisters, Young Vic

Benedict Andrews' energetic update is stronger on ensemble work than individual performances

Lunchtime at the Prozorovs', with Gala Gordon's Irina at the head of the table and Vanessa Kirby's Masha standingSimon Annand

Updating Chekhov is nothing new, despite the preliminary flurries about this production. Yet the singular directorial take can only highlight the master’s modernity in the bigger issues. If Australian iconoclast Benedict Andrews had continued as he seems to begin, with a Stanislavsky-like realism for today, passing anachronisms like the optimism for a better life in centuries to come, the idleness of a servanted household and a shockingly abrupt duel might jar. But phantasmagorical moments keep breaking through until the tenuous security of the three sisters stuck in a provincial Russian backwater is literally dismantled. The only problem is that what starts as energetic ensemble work ends up calling for more explosive existential crises than some of the actors are as yet capable of conveying.

The teamwork fluidly directed by Andrews certainly carries the text he has adapted from Helen Rappaport’s working translation. There’s no dislocation between authentic Chekhovian meditations on the meaning of life and work on the one hand and the healthy peppering of "fucks" which convey the frustrations of Masha and her brother Andrey. A pertinent Bowie refrain, "Golden Years" as symbol of Masha’s yearning, and a convincingly spontaneous group rendition of Kurt Cobain’s "Smells like Teen Spirit" on the night of the carnival sit easily alongside sentimental piano turns and Chebutykin’s authentic "Ta ra ra boom de-ay" in Act Four. Paul Arditti’s soundscape adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, not least in the wind howling round the house and the threatening low-level hum of helicopters as the regiment leaves town.

Movement is so free and easy in the first two acts, the hope for something better so vibrant, that you almost overlook the sisters’ physical distance from one another across the vasts of grey tables that represent the floor of the Prozorov house in Johannes Schütz’s chilly design. As the tables are slowly removed during the catalytic night of the town fire in Act Three, the women are forced closer even as they begin to feel their isolation the more, ending up huddled together on the earth mound at the back wall of the acting space.

William Houston as Vershinin and Vanessa Kirby as Masha in the Young Vic production of Three SistersTheir very different characters are deftly suggested at the start: Mariah Gale’s Olga, the sensible teacher – with one comic moment when she turns up inside a bear suit on carnival night - Vanessa Kirby mannered and nervy as glam-in-black Masha, beautiful newcomer Gala Gordon an ingénue Irina whose enthusiasms ring fresh and true. That they remain a little one-dimensional in the later crises, emoting without quite plumbing the depths, is mitigated by strengths elsewhere in a cast with few weak links; only Michael Feast’s Chebutykin overplays his hand in a barely intelligible drunken binge. Emily Barclay lights up the stage as the gauche Natasha, a tattooed Aussie wrapped up in a green ribbon, who turns into a domestic monster wreaking revenge on the condescension of her husband’s sisters. Danny Kirrane’s Andrey, the brother of promise gone to seed in a tracksuit pushing a pram around the stage, and Sam Troughton’s vigorous Tuzenbach find more pathos in their endgames than the actresses.

William Houston brings sonorous modulations to Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin’s art of philosophy as seduction, even if the fast-developing relationship with Kirby’s Masha (pictured above) feels less than central. But then the last time it did, in the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre Company’s visit to London, the rest of the cast lagged well behind the ill-fated couple, and that you could never say of this team. The outcome may be less than heartbreaking, but Andrews is sure enough of Chekhov’s trajectory to sweep his actors vigorously along with him.

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