Apparently it was Anton Chekhov’s 150th birthday last Friday. I didn’t notice but I did accidently go to see a production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. This is the only one of his four major plays I’d seen but all those had been fairly traditional productions. This production by Filter is not. As Paul Taylor puts it in the Indy:
Even the finest productions of Chekhov in this country can sometimes make you feel that the English are treating him as an honorary English gentleman and misrepresenting his world as a pre-revolutionary sepia-tinted Edwardian ideal, in that platonic summer-before-the-war that has everything to do with us and little to do with him. So it’s immensely refreshing that the excellent Filter collective have here collaborated with Sean Holmes, the new artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, on a production of Three Sisters that scraps all the pseudo-refinement, the costume-drama safety net and the microclimate of understated realism. But don’t think that they have put on a manual on deconstruction where the mood-swinging bipolar spirit of the play should be or that they have replaced with a set of crude larks the enormous subtlety with which the play orchestrates its shifting conflicted atmospheres and its sense of conversation as the criss-crossing of competing monologues.
This matchs my impressions, the production is much more liberated than any other I’ve seen. It is tempting (but probably stereotyping) to think of it as madly Russian; not bipolar but manic-depressive, jagging between laughter and tears. If this leaves it slightly rough and ready that is part of its charm, althought he splinters so add up.
Guardian critic Michael Billington was perhaps thinking of Taylor’s introduction when he recently wrote:
Mention of The Seagull reminds me of yet another myth currently gaining credence: that English Chekhov productions are full of swooning nostalgia for our own lost rural past. This is rubbish
This is certainly not your standard Chekhov. Jointly directed by Sean Holmes and the experimental troupe Filter, it is stripped down, spartan and sonically strange. But while it skirts sentimental cliche and has moments of psychological sharpness, I missed the textured, symphonic realism and emotional fullness of vintage Chekhov productions.
There is something of the world weary critic who has seen it all in both his pieces but Billington actually has positive things to say about pretty much every aspect of the play. The comments are much less generous, including one that says: “Romola Garai was so appalling in Trevor Nunn’s The Seagull that I cannot believe anyone would want to see her as Masha.” I thought she was rather fine, her “sexily anguished Masha” – as Taylor puts it – well matched by “John Lightbody’s ecstatically frustrated Vershinin”. In fact, all the actors where impressive, with the notable exception of Poppy Miller as Olga who was hopelessly emphatic and actorly. It was one of those productions: good in most ways but flawed in all areas, the freshness of some touches tempered by moments of clumsiness which seemed amateurish or, as in the use of the stage technician to play the non-speaking roles, contrived. This was probably the inevitable price for the informality of the piece.
Billington mentions the sound design at length and it is true it was more miss than hit (by the time I saw it they seem to have jettisoned the motif of ‘There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’ that several of the reviews mention). Otherwise the design was excellent. The third act in particular is staged very well, the set clumped into the middle of the otherwise bare stage, the actors occassionally having to break its claustrophobic confines. The customing is also very well-judged: the evolution of the members of the household matched by their clothes, the sharp divide between the soldiers and the ragged civilian men, even Farapont swaddled in his crash helmet (although why is the comic relief always Northern?).