Review: ...Sisters ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: ...Sisters

…Sisters, adapted and directed by Chris Goode from Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. Designed by Naomi Dawson, lighting design by Anna Watson. With Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson. Headlong Theatre @ The Gate, Notting Hill Gate, London, until July 5.

When last we spoke I was in a state of high irritation after seeing Anthony Neilson’s Relocated at the Royal Court. But a theatregoer’s unkillable optimism led me on Saturday to the wilds of London, or at least to Notting Hill Gate, where I climbed yet more stairs to see, this time, a matinee performance of …Sisters, a version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters adapted and directed by Chris Goode. And I gave thanks, for the karmic gods saw to it that there was balance. This production stands with one of the best Chekhov experiences I’ve had.

First, a confession: I’m a bit of a Chekhov fangirl. When I get to that big dinner table in the sky, I hope they seat me next to Anton for at least a few of those eternal moments. His letters reveal him to be a man of great personal charm: he was funny and lively and, which is perhaps most rare, he possessed a coolly humane social conscience, a wholly rational and sceptical compassion that, for example, informed his report on health conditions on the penal island of Sakhalin, and is one of the defining qualities of his work.

It’s this quality, I think, that makes Chekhov one of the more poorly understood playwrights of the modern age: the realisation of his texts demands a special kind of wisdom. The mantel of reverence – or, alternatively, the machismo of anti-reverence – often obscures the intense fragility that animates the strength of his drama. Worse, a grey miasma of contemporary naturalism tends to rise about his work, snuffing out the poetic vitality at its heart.

Goode’s version of Three Sisters has been billed as a “deconstruction”, but this seems like a cold word for what strikes me more as an organic reanimation, an attempt to recover (or perhaps, more accurately, to create) a Chekhov who is continually invested in the raw presence of the moment. At first glance, this appears a quixotic approach to a classic four act naturalistic play, but in fact it is an ambition peculiarly apt to Chekhov’s work. What has always moved me most about Chekhov’s plays is their tragic consciousness of the present, a profound sorrow and comedy that stems equally from the moment’s unbearably beautiful transience, or its crushing boredom, or its pain. For this reason among others, I have often thought that Beckett owes a great deal to Chekhov.

Writing about this production, as is true of all the best theatre experiences, is very difficult. To write it down is inevitably a kind of falsification, as it shifts something that exists almost entirely in the present into the past tense. And memory has its own filters and connectivities, selecting and fictionalising and shaping as it rewrites the experience. All that remains of this production now is what exists in the memory of those who were there.

This acute awareness of mortality (“Each thing once. Only once.”) is the informing feeling of …Sisters, and the reason why it’s so intensely moving. Because of the chance elements Goode and his actors have introduced, each performance is different: no one knows at the beginning who is going to play what parts, or even which lines will be said. However, these variations are played over a deeply thought structure: not only the play (which still preserves its four acts and its language) but in the shape of the production itself. It’s a show that teaches you how to watch it as you watch, profoundly intelligent but also, crucially, profoundly felt. When a character asks: Do we exist? the question resonates intimately in the auditorium: suddenly I felt as fictional – or, conversely, as real - as the characters on the stage. And who’s to say I am not?

Goode has adapted the play into contemporary English and gathered an exceptional cast (it clearly had to be exceptional) of six actors, all of whom learnt the entire text. Then he asked them, as he says in the program, to “dance”. And dance they do. One of the things that took my breath away about this production is its beautiful and subtle choreography, its creation of a continually dynamic space.

…Sisters maintains an exquisite tension between the scripted play and the anarchies of chance. From the moment we enter the space – designed as a comfortably cluttered green room with 19th century touches, complete with electric kettle, walls covered with post-it notes and framed collections of dead butterflies - we see the actors, half costumed, leafing through scripts or wandering idly about the stage, preparing for the show. The emphasis is from the beginning on performance in all its meanings, an awareness which implicates the audience. We are always conscious – we are never permitted to forget – that we are watching a work of theatre.

Goode uses a number of Cagean techniques: the actors choose straws, play spin-the-bottle and pick up at random envelopes containing instructions that drop from the ceiling. Anyone could play any character, and at any point might become someone else. Despite this, it’s a production very strong on clarity: clues are given from the beginning – in costuming and dialogue – to show who is who, although these clues are instantly destabilised. For this reason, it demands close attention. But although my memory of Three Sisters was very vague (I resisted the impulse to reread the play, and merely reacquainted myself with the character list), there was no point where I found myself utterly lost. Perhaps those who don't know the play might be lost, but I suspect what is fruitfully destroyed here is a certain kind of dramatic expectation.

The four acts are very distinct. Act I establishes the play, and sticks most closely to the text as written. Act II stretches the conventions: at one point, for example, there are three Mashas. The love scene between Masha and Vershinin gains a skin-prickling poignancy by being performed in a kind of chorus, the dialogue shifting from one couple to another with no attention to gender. Act III, the dramatic climax, is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to play-as-opera, and is the point where the play's emotional subtext surges rawly to the surface of the performance.

Act IV is a return to stasis, with performers seated staring out at the audience, but now the play is in pieces, literally scattered over the floor for one of the actors, continually circling the others, to pick up and read at random. In a rather Castellucci-ish touch, two rabbits hop onto the stage and lollop around, behaving, as animals and babies do, with a hypnotic lack of self consciousness. I thought it a tribute to the actors that I found myself watching them as closely as I watched the rabbits, which ended up, bored, fast asleep under a desk at the end of the scene. But for all the random elements, the performance begins and ends where the play begins and ends: it still, rather miraculously, attends to Chekhov's dramatic and emotional arc.

I don’t know whether, if he had seen this production, Chekhov would have advised his friends (as he so often did) to “shoot him in the head” if he ever thought about writing another play. But I like to think he might have been pleased: for all its robust approach, ...Sisters seemed to me to be deeply true to him. Certainly, in its peculiar and evanescent transparency, it's a work of exemplary integrity. No wonder people here think Chris Goode is God.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree less, Alison.

I found the production largely tedious, with the cleverness of the conceit undermined by a dull theatrical realisation.

The aleatory shifting of characters isn't really interesting in and of itself and the stated intention of keeping everything "in the unknown" shouldn't be an end but rather a means to an end. The complete lack of any dramatic tension or physical energy in the performances -- that is, the banal naturalism of it all -- made the piece seem utterly of the past, not the present. There was no sense at all that anything could be shifted or transformed on this stage, there was no danger, no passion, no life. It was a fatalistic rendering of a story with a fatalistic undercurrent, which inevitably leads to a flat, uninspiring lack of dynamism.

Playfulness was also left untapped. In a production that could have allowed a clown-like exuberance of costume-changes, funny beards and cross-dressing, the reverent tone and listless rhythms created dull interludes in scenes where some kind of meaningful invention could have been. Perhaps this is an Anglo-Saxon thing?

Finally, the aural miasma that so often afflicted the sections of chorused speech completely detracted from the text. "Theatre-as-opera", as you describe it Alison, is perhaps a good description, because opera can often be completely rubbish as theatre.

Highly disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps you were just very drunk.

Alison Croggon said...

Who was drunk? Rowley or me? For my part, I was very sober, it being the middle of the afternoon and well before my 5pm nip of sherry.

I can imagine why some people might not enjoy this production. But I couldn't agree less re: lack of playfulness or listlessness and reverence, and I do remember seeing funny beards and cross-dressing, so I don't know why you didn't. (Also, I've seen those red-nose "Chekhov-was-just-a-comedian" productions, which forget that, as funny as he is, and he is funny, he is ultimately a tragedian. Drama is about "Iron in the blood", as Chekhov said.) I liked this production for subtlety, nuance, detail, fragility, passion: and I suspect we'll just have to agree to disagree on the effct. As for the boredom thing - although I wasn't bored at all, it might be worth remembering that a huge part of Chekhov's portrayal of provincial life is all about these bored, idle, listless people. No doubt we saw different performances, which complicates discussion slightly.

Anonymous said...

Alison, Rowley's always drunk. And the beards weren't funny, they were just beards.

Anonymous said...

Thinking back on it, Alison, I would say I was most impressed with the textual adaptation. If it was fresh, it was to the extent that no reverence to the actual words, phrases was shown: every so often a phrase of great strength and clarity would come up. The chance character of the performance, apart from keeping the actors on their toes, also made us, the audience, pay a little bit more attention to what was going on. I agree with you on both these points.

But, Alison, that rabbit at the end was offensive. When Castellucci puts a living thing on stage, there is a deeper motive. I don't think you, nor anyone else, could tell me what the purpose of the rabbit was, except perhaps to introduce something new in Act IV, which is a pitiful reason to do anything.

The other objection is to turning Act IV into a funeral, when I see it more as a soft optimistic peak followed by a soft pessimistic landing. Until then, it was all suficiently light, and I was hopeful. But to have actors looking up with tears in their eyes, murmuring about life in a theatrical catatonia, is so far from what life disappointments look like, that the entire production for me fails right there.

Sure, let's encourage experiment. But let's not praise something just for not being naturalistically so-called directed. Tackling a classic is always hard, yes. To take a text from another time and space, and match it to current time and space perfectly is hard enough: to bring something new to it and execute it perfectly is almost impossible, I think, without tearing it apart and rebuilding it anew. I don't think Goode did that, I think he stopped on one, perhaps two devices to open it up. And it may have brought some fresh air to the text, but the performance, as a whole, got increasingly tired towards the end and, I guess, slightly boring. I cannot judge it only as a treatment of the text, without judging its success as a performance: that is, treatment of the audience.

Anonymous said...

At least you are in London Alison and a long long way away from the train wreck that is "Manna." Saw it on your word and have never seen a bigger squandering of resources for no purpose.

Anonymous said...

Erm - (in Ireland now) - my apologies Margaret if I unknowingly misled you, I suddenly feel guilty. Although I will stand by my appreciation of the text, and obviously know nothing about the production. The text was always going to be an ambitious enterprise. I hope it was a noble failure, if failure it was, ie a proper debacle as opposed to a failure of nerve.

I get your point, Jana, but simply disagree about soft optimistic/pessimistic denouments...! I have never seen soft landings anywhere in Chekhov...And I wasn't struck by this production just because it was experimental, or just because it was non naturalistic, which in themselves are not virtues. PS You're a bit hard on those poor rabbits... and Ed my boy, surely beards are funny by definition? Or maybe I'm just a hirsuphobe.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

it seems your critics have finally got to you and you're now posting anonymously.

(You also have a bit to learn about the practice as I was pretty sure it was you after only two or three readings. Let me know if you need some tips.)

Anonymous said...

It is full of Max L directorial trademarks [based on the two previous shows of his I have witnessed]. Actors talk into microphones and leadenly intone their lines with a po-faced monotony of rhythm that matches the physical constraints straining their necks towards mics suspended from the rig impose on them. Max likes to put a transparent/opaque physical barrier between his audience and actors. Is he inserting a fourth wall? In the last two shows it was a perspex sheet - this time a lacy drape. Does it mean anything? What am I missing?

In “Manna” I couldn't detect narrative or image continuity of any sort. There didn't seem to be repetition or accumulation of any theme - not helped by it being difficult to understand the words sometimes. It seemed to be a series of disconnected fragments of odd phrases with the deliberate avoidance of the sort of theatrical devices that might engage or hold the audience. I concentrated hard, but this dull, grey theatrical mush switched my brain off and my major emotional response was a slowly growing pity for the actors forced to endure the early giggles of the audience behind me and the restless silence from all of us for the length of the endurance test.

Can anyone enlighten me on these techniques? What’s the story about the 4th wall?

Chris Goode said...

I don't normally intervene in conversations around my work, and I'm always grateful to read the comments of anyone who's engaged with what I'm doing, whether or not they've liked it or found it effective in a particular instance.

I do want to say to Jana, though, that, as with absolutely every element of ...Sisters, the presence of the rabbits in Act IV is deeply and rigorously through-thought, and an even moderately attentive consideration of the way in which the piece frames Chekhov's original as a turning argument about theatre will place the activity of the rabbits right at the precipice of that argument.

It would be an abuse of Alison's hospitality -- and of my own dubious authority -- to offer a fuller commentary: but I've written frequently, both on my blog and elsewhere, about the placement of animals into this kind of mise en scene. Again, I'm content for those ideas to be rejected outright: but the suggestion that the introduction of the rabbits is some kind of vapid caprice to perk up an increasingly boring play is itself depthless and disappointing. Actually, that fourth act may sometimes need to be boring before it can be anything else, and one reason I favour rabbits is that they don't titillate in that way.

Thanks for your comments, anyway. I hope all those who were disappointed by the piece are able to bear with it. It didn't always work, and I find myself disagreeing with the production's keenest supporters almost as often as with its detractors. But I would want to assure everyone that no part of it, no detail, was conceived or created without deep and searching thought among its makers: which goes for the rabbits not least.

Anonymous said...

Frank is spot on in his analysis of the woeful "Manna." I think the Sun Herald was far too kind in describing it as annoyingly incomprehensible--I spent the second endless half hour silently mourning the terrible squandering of resources that could have been spent on a theatre piece of value. Next time STC cries poor and moans about their deficit, they should be reminded of this useless extravagance.

Anonymous said...


you've made your point (twice). I won't get to see Manna so you may right in your assessment, but as you mentioned the Sun Herald's negative review I think it's worth noting in the interest of fairness that The Sydney Morning Herald gave it a resounding thumbs up. It concluded:

"Spielman and Lyandvert have imaginatively pursued the possibility in theatre to give poetic musical voice to the unfathomable, and Sydney theatre is richer for their artistic ambition."

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that, Troubador (back less anonymously on my own computer now, in London briefly before I head back to Melbourne). I wish I could have seen Manna, and I'm sorry I missed it. This whole conversation begs the question of experiment in theatre: more specifically, the question of failure, ("Fail again. Fail Better." as Mr Beckett muttered so famously). It is one thing to say that something didn't work, another - especially in the case of work that attempts to stretch the envelope - to suggest that it ought not to be tried in the first place. I get worried about the "waste of resources" argument in relation to this: I've seen so many things on main stages (Williamson, Rayson etc) which I personally think are a massive waste of resources, I'm sure hugely much more so than this relatively modest production, but somehow the question never gets raised in these cases. I would never suggest for my part that they have no right to exist or that they don't serve an audience. Just that the audience they're going for isn't me.

More pertinently, surely there's a responsibility for major companies to invest in R&D, even if it doesn't wholly "work", even if the result resoundingly doesn't work. George Devine's "right to fail", again, which has nothing to do with slackness and everything to do with whole-hearted exploration, hard work and going out on limbs. It happens all too rarely in our main stage culture, and the fact that something snuck through ought at least to be credited.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Chris, thanks for your note, too. And quite. Whether one thought ...Sisters worked or not, it was very clear that it wasn't just slapped together ad hoc.

Also, just briefly to Frank on Manna: there was an under-narrative of sorts but it certainly wasn't attempting to be narrative in any conventional way. The text itself - I am speaking only of the text, obviously - is a physically plosive investigation of the relationship between language and violence. It is structured as a poem, not a dramatic poem, but more along the lines of a piece of music, ie, what matters is the structure and sound as is as important as semantic sense. Yes, such stuff requires a certain kind of attention and also a physical realisation which it may or may not have received - certainly as written, it's a carefully conceived, intelligent and passionate piece. Easy? No, it wasn't an easy text. I don't think that ought to be a crime either.

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