Sue and I went to see Martha Henry’s production of Three Sisters at Stratford on Thursday night.
I went in with no real expectations since there have been some mixed reviews (though others have absolutely loved it). I was pleasantly surprised for the most part. It was at the Tom Patterson, so the audience is pretty much on top of the stage, and there’s really no place to hide for the set or the actors.
Basically, there are 3 sisters–Olga, Masha and Irina–and a brother–Andrei–living in a parochial town after their father’s death. Well educated and intelligent, the girls feel stifled and can’t wait for their brother to take them back to Moscow, where they can enjoy society while he becomes a famous professor. This is the only thing that keeps them going, other than the fact that the soldiers are stationed there, and they provide some diversion and attractive uniforms.
But it’s Chekhov, so you know this isn’t gonna work out so well.
I definitely got the feeling that the cast is comfortable with each other, and Henry assembled some long-time Stratford players who know their voice and can project without the spit-shouting that sometimes mars newbie performances in the bigger productions.
Most of the performances were quite good. In particular, Dalal Badr as Irina carried the innocence and idealism of the character quite well after her first scene (when she seemed to be completely flouncing her dress with no idea why she was flouncing her dress), and the wonderful James Blendick as Doctor Chebutykin (the sopped Doctor/tenant) whose quips and love of Irina are endearing, even as he descends to despondence “We are all not really here” (as they hope but know it’s not true).
Kelli Fox, as Natasha, pulls off that “small girl made tyrant” so well, that by the end of it we wanted to give her a smackdown. In every scene she was in, she pulled eyes toward her, and that’s a good thing on the stage. Also Juan Chioran brings the right kind of madness to Solyony whose social awkwardness belies a level of anger that comes to break Irina’s last chance to find a measure of happiness, even if it’s “settling” with the Baron (Sean Arbuckle, whom I’ve liked in several plays).
And Tom McCamus, looking a little old and weary, does a fairly good job with the philosophically bleak Vershinin.
The one let-down, in fact, was Lucy Peacock as Masha. Her costuming didn’t help – it was a frumpy Spanish doll look that made her look old and cheap. I get that Masha is old before her time in her marriage to Kulygin (whose entrance was both entertaining and spot-on) but even in later scenes when she’s falling in love with Vershinin, it’s like there’s a cougar trying to be a crazed teenager and a melodramatic crone at the same time. I’ve not liked her in other productions I’ve seen, but she’s known to be a darling of the Stratford set, and I really don’t get it. Her whole performance was disjarring for me.
Henry’s attention to the quotidienne, and the majesty, comedy and tragedy of small gestures really lifts the moments in the play. Some of the scenes I liked best include a tandem “striptease” between Vershinin and Masha where just the removal of footwear bespeaks longing and danger, and the poor cuckolded Andrei relentlessly pushing a baby carriage in circles (and probably not his child to boot), and in small caresses that the Â Baron is allowed with Irina.
As commentary on contemporary life, this play has a lot to say. About deferred joy and about fulfillment. In Act I, Irina passionately wants to work–the sweat and physicality that she has never experienced seems a liberation and a realisation of her idea to have purpose–until the family finances and changing politics in early 20th-Century Russia forces her to first work at the Telegraph office (from which she recoils in despair) and then finally for the council. A life as a wife, even if it’s not in Moscow, can only be better than that.
But what makes you want to leap from your 21st Century chair and deliver a sobering volley upon their heads is that no character forces a change–takes charge of where they are going and changes the direction–hell, goes off to frickin’ Moscow on their own! Oh, but there are many of us who are sitting in a rut of our own making, who wake up and 5 years have gone by and the thing that was making us tired and angry and mentally lethargic is still there. And we may never get to Moscow either.