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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, with design by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Jack Knowles, George Dennis’ sound, rounded with Angus MacRae’s spare composition.


Inevitably there’s a sharp intake with Rebecca Frecknall’s return to the Almeida – with Patsy Ferran – after their Olivier-winning production of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Summer and Smoke. That was a revelation, partly because its stunning set – pianos skirting bare auditorium – so strikingly allowed Ferran’s performance to breathe. Partly as it proved a classic from the repertoire’s bottom drawer. It confirmed Ferran and establishes Frecknall. Now they tackle an acknowledged classic.


Except Chekhov’s Three Sisters is always renewed. Not just because that’s what classics do to themselves but with a new version. It’s an inspired choice. Cordelia Lynn broke through with the harrowing Lela & Co then One For Sorrow both at the Royal Court. She’s now asked to write about navigating ‘somewhere strange between a translation and an adaptation’.


Likening it to love, the way Chekhov creeps into her own work, the result’s actively faithful to a 1900 text (original names and references peppered throughout), though Lynn’s speech-rhythms nudge it to millennial-speak to further point up the sisters’ relevance to well, millennials. There’s expletives and phrases like the eldest Olga’s ‘like he’s done it deliberately’ spoken at admittedly high stress on a doctor’s drunkenness in a crisis. Distance between slightly snobby general’s daughters and townsfolk shrinks; Chekhov’s class distinctions, a critique intensifying in his last two plays, shrivels too.


And it’s not that Frecknall and her team don’t point it up elsewhere. The result’s a slight blur. Contemporary English is more homogenized; perhaps less slanginess from Olga and her sisters might play off against greater emphasis elsewhere. But Lynn’s first adaptation is lovingly done, her instincts right, and this should be a text to revive. Not least because Lynn refuses to pare down Chekhov’s repetitions. So this weighs in at nearly 2 hours 55 with interval – admittedly with Frecknall’s fearless deployment of pause.


Though the chief draw, Ferran’s Olga has least lines which says much for her warm ensemble sense. With such individuality she mightn’t be obvious for responsible eldest-burdened Olga, who at 28 feels already old for marriage. Ferran though invests Olga with a quiddity and unexpectedness that makes her wholly believable – even a strange inability to stand up to her bullying sister-in-law Natasha. Ferran mesmerises in moments when Olga silently admits she might have found happiness, even with her middle sister’s schoolmaster husband. That’s Fyodor, preposterous, twitchy foot-in-mouth Elliot Levey, who gives one of the finest performances.


Hildegard Bechtler’s design encourages something of this temper. There’s no Chekhovian clutter, and the fleeting appearance of a silver samovar lights a moment on a stage filled with chairs, which sets off the striking opening. In mime-prayer and upraised arms, the cast enact the funeral of the general whose death leaves the sisters orphans. The whole’s sprigged with white May-blossom, and then when most chairs vanish the bare set proclaims the youngest Irina’s birthday, hence samovar, and the anniversary of the general’s dying exactly a year ago. It marks a calendrical inevitability, and Frecknall makes poetry of it.


There’s an upright piano upstage left which gets achingly close to being played once, by Vershinin, the battery commander. But the piano never sounds. A violin’s played but not onstage where brother Andrey its nominal player sits on a ledge in the brickish alcove with the violin beside him resolutely silent. Costumes shift from 1900 male (military, civilian) through to indeterminate party-frock midis for the sisters. Strikingly middle sister Masha, like another Masha wears black in mourning for her life, though there’s an interregnum. And a period riding hat. There’s one real anachronism, a transistor radio. Cameras move from Bakelite to modern Instagram projecting photos onto the back wall. It ought to mean more than it does. A final coup involves the removal of the wooden stage to reveal scorched earth.


Jack Knowles’ lighting introduces atmospheric, seasonal shifts, and George Dennis’ sound with ominous thwunks consciously presages The Cherry Orchard. There’s a hallucinatory moment too when a spinning top’s introduced; sound eerily expands throughout. It’s deft and memorable, rounded with Angus MacRae’s spare composition, heard too sparely.


Frecknall draws out detailed readings. Cynical, already-frustrated Mahsa, in Pearl Chandra’s smouldering performance threw herself away on Fyodor at 18, wrongly thinking him the cleverest man in town. Levey’s superb at confirming this, in awkward Latinisms and preposterous smugness which suddenly crumbles.


But when Irish Peter McDonald’s philosophic, charming Vershinin shows up, he and Masha abandon pretence of even noticing their spouses. Vershinin who has so many lines about hope for the future (his ‘but not for us’ is sensed rather than spoken) engages with Masha’s frustrations whist queasily dissing his mentally distressed wife as ‘worthless’. The attraction’s mutual, sincere on Vershinin’s part to an unfathomable degree; desperately so on Masha’s. She snatches at happiness, rapture even to the jealousy of sisters who’ve never known love. ‘Don’t tell me’ says Olga and Irina puts her shawl over her head. Indeed habitual overlaying of clothes over the prone sisters shadows the burial they feel. When Masha and Vershinin finally part, Masha literally wrenched from him as Olga finally acknowledges Masha’s desperation, it’s one of the most painful realisations of this painful scene. Frecknall allows the actors to wrench slowly.


Ria Zmitrowicz’s Irina makes the longest journey, from still-adolescent 20 to over 24. In Acts Three and Four she’s resigned. Her weary rejection of Shubham Saraf’s finely awkward Nickolay, Baron Tuzenbach melts only slightly. Whilst finally promising to dwindle into a wife, Zmitrowicz’s Irina is both numbed and shrinks from touch: she confesses she can’t love Tuzenbach, who accepts it before an aching farewell, realised here with all the amplitude it takes to shout echoes to woods. Only gradually does Irina realize he’s to fight a duel with Alexander Eliot’s finely-triggered Vasily.


At the start Freddie Meredith’s understated Andrey – rather dreamily suggesting a former brilliance – marries. Meredith sketches a brother finally recalling his past and truth too late, but also burdened with sibling expectation he seems bent on thwarting.


His wife Lois Chimimba’s Natasha is first mildly derided by their sisters, Scottish accent standing for provincial otherness. It’s a thankless role carried through with ruthless self-absorption, fiercely maternal, incidentally vengeful. Chimimba who starts as meltingly awkward before she’s married, repays in kind from the next scene (Chekhov’s jump-cut to 19 months on), a termagant to servants, literally turning out the sisters – who co-own the home – as feckless Andrey re-mortgages the house to pay for his gambling.


It’s Natasha who douses the brief but memorable revelry of sisters and officers, snuffing out permission for joy just as her husband later talks of the world being blown out.


Chekhov still skewers the sisters’ hypocrisy. They’re unkind on occasion themselves, which Ferran and Chanda don’t mute. Olga’s outrage over Natasha’s treatment of Anne Firbank’s neatly distracted old nanny Anfisa is 18-carat humbug considering her own scolding; though this ends happier for Anfisa than it does for The Cherry Orchard’s Firs.


Natasha’s affair with Andrey’s provincial boss (her second child’s by him) is acknowledged by all but Andrey. He repeats the mantra ‘honest’ about Natasha, as the sisters reiterate the need for ‘work’ though Masha’s is obscure. Lynn’s refusal to prune mantras might irritate but it’s Chekhov’s rhythms and what she might lose in one emphasis, Lynn triumphs in elsewhere.


Much here is supplied by Alan Williams’ drunken doctor Ivan, snatching folk and nursery rhymes. In one subsong of decay he confesses uselessness like a fragile aria, elsewhere speaking what no-one else dares with demotic plainness. Including crucial advice to Andrey. It’s riveting. There’s good work too from Akshay Sharan’s ‘little’ Alex, a preppy young officer, Sonny Poon Tip’s equally junior Vladimir and Eric MacLennan’s deaf, put-upon council worker Ferapont whose comic scurrying after councillor Andrey turns sour as Andrey ducks even life-saving decisions.


That slight linguistic blur in Lynn’s version and Frecknall’s painstaking arc allows us 1900-and-now, though the very inflections seem just that bit ‘whatever’ not always biting through to Chekhov’s amused tenderness, though his irony’s well-pointed. A little of the heartbreak isn’t quite there. Different, adventurous adaptors project a 21st century Chekhov – the Young Vic’s in 2012 was memorable. Lynn can’t quite go the other way, but we should be grateful. Frecknall lets text and actors huddle. There’s outstanding performances from Ferran, Chanda, Zmitrowicz, Williams, Levey and very strong ones from MacDonald and Chimimba. This absorbing production keeps growing in the mind, like to take root.