Edinburgh Fringe 2011
It’s been fashionable in recent years to argue whether or not Three Sisters should be played as tragedy or comedy. The debate has never really been resolved – much like the desires of the titular women themselves – and in this production, appropriately enough presented in the Debating Hall of the Gilded Balloon, there will be no answers soon. It’s interesting to note that in their advertising, the company has done that curious Edinburgh Fringe thing of entitling a famous play with the name of the author, so it becomes Three Sisters by Anton Chekov (what, did they think we’d confuse it with another, lesser known Three Sisters?)
There’s a comfortable running length of a hour and a half, so it’s startling as the play begins to have the dialogue rattled through at a breakneck pace, as the company attempts to squeeze everything in, quite often having characters speaking over one another. Occasionally, that’s entirely appropriate – one of the themes of this play is the cooped-up, claustrophobic nature of too many people crammed into a small space – but more often, it seems like a ill-thought out directorial tic, particularly when too groups of people are having extended conversations simultaneously, and at the same volume.
It makes you notice – and question – other directorial decisions: at one point, someone exits through a doorframe to play a piano – presumably suggesting that the piano is in another room – but then, moments later in the same scene, another character simply walks directly to the piano to join the first character. It’s a small point, but it’s an irritant, and as the play progresses, there are a few too many times when you’re left questioning ‘why did they do that?’ – and always in relation to the performers, rather than the characters.
However, generally speaking, it’s a perfectly reasonable production of what is now something of an old warhorse of a play. That being said, since the play is indeed so familiar, a new production should really bring something new to the party. It’s all very solid and convincing, and the cast all perform well. But fatally, what appears to be lacking is a clear conviction in what the play’s actually about. Sure, they all know what actually happens plot-wise, but the interpretation is up to – well, interpretation. The sisters’ desire to move to Moscow is such a benchmark of the play it’s become a clichéd gag even to people who have never seen Three Sisters. Yet here, apart from the desire to leave being repeated as often as the script dictates, there is no sense of loss or even ennui, and it’s not clear that anything really matters.
Crucially, and most importantly, however, this is a production without three sisters, in the sense that there is no suggestion of sibling love or rivalry, simply three women who share the same surname. After a while, despite their physical differences, the three’s motives become somewhat interchangeable. However, their sister in law is a preening, social climbing prima donna, bringing energy with her each time she appears on stage.
‘Some days are good days, some days are bad’ a character remarks at one point. This production, essentially falls somewhere between the two. There’s a very good production frustratingly in view, but it appears that everyone is being somewhat too reverential for the text, not bringing their own attitudes and agenda to the party, apparently not realising that Chekov is quite robust enough to take a few brave interpretations. In many ways, then, that curious title – Three Sisters By Anton Chekov is all you need to know: word for word, scene for scene, this is absolutely Three Sisters as written by Anton Chekov. This is a perfectly reasonable stab at Chekov. What is required is more ownership by the company, and for them to make it their own.