Pros: A voyeuristic Chekhov. Clear and easy to follow with no extraneous detail. Staged well with intricate use of sound. Some audience members loved it.
Cons: It lacks the weight required by the text. Character is often diluted to serve the pace of the storytelling.
A short jaunt through the rain from Southwark Tube, the new locale of the Union Theatre is a stone’s throw from its previous spot, albeit on the other side of the road. With its cosy bar, friendly staff and competitive pricing, it’s not a bad place to anticipate an evening of theatre. Not the easiest to find if you’ve never been there before though.
I know Chekhov’s work well. It’s constantly produced, hard to do justice to and often alienates people. I prefer to arrive at a play with no idea of what to expect, so I endeavoured to empty my mind of all preconceptions. Eagerly leafing through the programme, I discovered that adapter Tracy Letts’ ‘guiding principle’ was for an audience to have ‘direct communication with the ideas and the characters’. I was excited, but kept hold of my drink. This was a production I really wanted to like.
The space is an impressive one. Performing in the round is a doubled edged sword. It affords a wealth of entrances, approximating the feel of a fly on the wall in a large country house. However, this is offset against having to gauge a character’s reaction to a crucial moment by reference to the back of their head. Music and smoke were used effectively to create atmosphere and the costumes were effective at suggesting a strong sense of each character’s status and trade.
Three Sisters is one of Chekhov’s most demanding plays. The surface plot is simple; three sisters, raised in Moscow, lament the banality of their rural Russian lives, a dullness which is broken only by the arrival of a military brigade to the area. Time passes, the sisters develop relationships and question life’s choices, in their minds believing Moscow the panacea for their present pains. So far, so simple. The beauty of the play lies in the depth of the characters, an eternally human sense of longing and the long-suppressed tensions that bubble to the surface through the cracked façade of polite society. At least, that’s the theory. Letts’ version of the play sacrifices so much in pursuit of accessibility that calling this production Three Sisters is arguably misleading.
Perhaps for this reason I struggled to engage with the characters. Deep, introspective thoughts were too readily on the lips. Lines were given equal weight regardless of context. There was little sense of an outside world, or of any relationships between characters that went deeper than sharing words. A scene taking place after a fire had the same energy as a hungover Sunday morning following a party. The (mostly) young cast attacked the text with energy and commitment, but for the most part I simply didn’t believe in what I was seeing.
I fear I’m being too harsh. J.P Turner is superb as Chebutykin, even if his character’s seminal moment takes place offstage in this production. Hugo Nicholson does an excellent job of infusing Solyony with menace and desire. Others have their moments. The cast clearly know how to act, but too frequently the sitcom pace of this production jars with the thoughts and words they mean to express.
Phil Willmott should be praised for staging an accessible Chekhov. I overheard audience members who found this engaging, funny and compelling. Maybe this will be for you, it just wasn’t for me.
Original Author: Anton Chekhov
Adapted By: Tracy Letts
Director: Phil Willmott
Producer: Sasha Regan & The Phil Willmott Company
Box Office: 020 7961 9876
Booking Link: http://uniontheatre.savoysystems.co.uk/UnionTheatre.dll/TSelectItems.waSelectItemsPrompt.TcsWebMenuItem_836.TcsWebTab_837.TcsProgramme_62389
Booking Until: 4 February 2017