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Chekhov’s "Three Sisters" at The Young Vic, Southwark

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Posted by May B on Friday 21st of September 2012


I admit I have always been a little afraid of Chekhov – I had always imagined that the famous Russian playwright’s work would be hard to appreciate without a degree in literature or the dramatic arts. But I was encouraged by the fact that the play was supposedly inspired by the life of the Bronte sisters so I dragged one of my friends along on Thursday evening for some culture.

Walking from Waterloo station we were surprised at the heaving masses outside The Fire Station and crossed the road to where there was an open air stage where a chap was doing a reasonable Elvis Presley impersonation while some of the audience gamely danced along. We tarried for a while before hitting the full-to-bursting bar at The Young Vic, finding a couple of empty chairs at a table on the upper level balcony where we drank our wine in quiet contemplation.

The play is in four acts. And I admit that I was mightily pleased that this Benedict Andrews version has taken its 1901 roots and added a touch of the modern day in terms of the outfits, the language (a sprinkling of swear words), the chain smoking and the occasional blast of lively music (e.g. David Bowie’s “Golden Years” and Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”). The odd out of place accent (Scottish?) and live music (piano, guitars, accordion) added some interest too. It was also a relief that the material and acting was sufficiently amusing so that there were a good few laughs along the way. Which is just as well, as my companion was struggling to get it – “it’s mostly conversations about the meaning of life”. Precisely.

With apologies to Chekhov scholars, the play is about three sisters – Olga (the eldest and a school teacher), Masha (the married-at-18-to-a-school-teacher but who has an affair) and Irina (the youngest, whose birthday coincides with the anniversary of their father’s death). Their outfits reflect their characters – Olga wears sensible pleats, Masha sports sexy black lace and Irina – initially floats around in romantic numbers but then reverts to drab working gear. They are living in the country – which fortunately has some military types posted nearby for amusement - but they all long to return to Moscow where they believe their dreams could come true.

The angst expressed by these three women revolves around the pointlessness of them being educated and cultured in such a backwater and their naïve desire to have real work (“I long for work like ice cold water on a hot day”). They have a brother Andrey who is an intellectual but also a gambler who has fallen for Natasha, whose lower status appears to be depicted by her poor taste in belts and tattoos and her Australian accent.

But as years pass, they find work exhausting, love to be a disappointment and the occasional crisis rather draining. And so the demanding Natasha takes the upper hand. Act 4 contains all the action – a duel which leaves Irina without a husband, Masha abandoned by her lover and returned to her husband and Olga manacled to her work through a promotion to headmistress.

There were some memorable lines: “Life is difficult, mysterious and full of joy”, “There’s no such thing as happiness – it’s a marketing ploy”, “If the world didn’t suck, we’d fall off” and “The present is disgusting, but the future will be glorious”. But we’ll probably remember the incredibly loud bell, the mound of earth and the rather clever construction of the stage from lots of wooden tables. And the fabulous outfits worn by the equally fabulous Vanessa Kirby who played Masha.

Three Sisters runs until 3rd November - http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/three-sisters



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