Heard the one about why God gave women orgasms? “So they’ve got something else to moan about”. It’s not a new a gag, but I’d wager that you’re unlikely to have caught it before in a revival of Chekhov. “What the fuck does that mean?” asks Masha when the disconcerting Solyony airs it in the Young Vic’s new Three Sisters.
Adapted and directed by the strenuously radical Australian auteur Benedict Andrews, this version does not set out to endear itself to traditionalists. It’s performed on a large thrust stage overhung by a light box and composed of rectangular grey tables which, as the characters’ dreams disintegrate, are gradually carted away from under their feet by the bit-part soldiers. You may be torn between thinking this an eloquent symbol of diminished hope and regarding it as an over-protracted look-at-me directorial device that distracts from what is being said.
I felt divided, too, over the show’s entire conception. It is is neither a full-blooded contemporary reworking of Chekhov (as in, say, Janet Suzman’s The Free State which relocates The Cherry Orchard in modern South Africa) nor a thorough-going deconstruction like Filter’s recent bracing meltdown of Three Sisters. Instead, with the deliberate effect of jarring anachronism, it updates the language and the cultural references but it does not revealingly revise the life-expectations of Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary characters or the intimations of impending seismic change.
This creates a weird, dislocated world where they can freak out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in an elating sequence on the carnival evening but where people are still reckoned to be past it at sixty like Michael Feast’s anarchic drunken doctor in his cheesy bottle-green DJ.
Vanessa Kirby’s strikingly AbFab-ish Masha can moan about the “mindless-fucking-boredom” of married life to a pedantic schoolmaster, without seeming to have heard of divorce. There are tracksuits and tattoos and (when Sam Troughton’s moving Tuzenbach imagines the future) talk of quantum teleportation. Climate change, though, is conveniently forgotten when Vershinin (a faintly absurd, conscious heart-throb in William Houston’s fine portrayal) speculates that “In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful – paradise”.
The production has a jagged energy and a powerful sense of self-conviction, but I sometimes felt that the strong cast – including Mariah Gale as an affecting Olga and the bewitching newcomer Gala Gordon as Irina – were subordinated to the concept, not least when having to toil over a mound of earth even to get on.
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