Three Sisters – Anton Chekhov made “now” by SUDS. (Theatre review)

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Three Sisters

30 July to 9 August

Sydney University Dramatic Society. You can grab tickets here. 

It is a very interesting thing to see a strong, large cast of exquisitely beautiful young people performing Anton Chekhov’s great existential tragedy, but even more interesting when they’re located in 2014 Sydney as a backdrop against a bitterly cold Russian winter, broken only by the fire that burns a town, or the pitifully provincial life of the Bronte sisters whose story – supposedly – forms the inspiration for Three Sisters. Location is important in director Saro Lusty-cavallari’s production, including a set that incorporates a long back corridor that acts at regular points in the play as a birth canal for parts of the cast, themes and ideas, some of them (such as the famous “unseen” characters of Three Sisters) almost seeming stillborn in the going nowhere world of the Prozorova’s. With such a youthful cast taking the play so seriously, Chekhov’s tale of systemic ennui and chronic dissatisfaction almost seems transgressive, as if it is a deep seeded truth, and youthful vigor nothing more than an attempt to mask it by the naively optimistic. SUDS have taken on a great challenge to perform such a long, complex play involving so many characters with an intentionally sincere focus, but it is a gamble that has paid off for them very well, as the subtext of location, setting and a wonderful sound work by Jade Yeung and Antoinette Guster bring nuances out in the well-known play that locate it as a fresh and exciting and with something very “now” to say.

Existentialism itself was both brought into being and questioned through the internal meanderings (made external through art) of an intellectual community seemingly at odds with the apparently fast paced trajectory of industrialisation that forged a new human being through the enlightenment. Lusty-Cavallari makes the question of what is the intellectual to do among all this “work” and the possibility of more “work” pertinent by placing it in the mouths of the hopeful youth at university. It is impossible to separate this production from its reality, something that works wonderfully in its favour. When the tragic Baron Nikolaj Lvovich Tusenbach (wonderfully performed by Christian Byers) keeps declaring he will go to work, as if it is an ideological stand or an attempt to pitch woo, it is kind of horrifying to see this in the context of how few choices students have these days, the matter of work being less of an existential dilemma and more of a survival imperative. The bourgeoisie might love the notion of sitting around a table spread with fine cheese and Cabernet and philosophising into the night, but how many of them under sixty actually get to do that these days? Theatre (most importantly) but all art form is becoming a political imperative again – not in an attempt to speak against an ideology, but rather in a fight for the mere survival of an ephemeral knowing that must retain value in a society in love with its own spurious rationalising. Those of us who fight for art these days, can’t even defend it for its own sake. In an obsessively capitalist first world, it is interesting how our relationships with art (What value is it? How much money does it make?) has become a profoundly Stalinist one.

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And yet here they are. A group of very talented young people, performing Chekhov in one of Australia’s best universities, on a cold Sydney night, debating the truth of their own existence. In this context Chris Howell and Chenier Moore’s set becomes this giant birth canal, the audience a cluster of cold, dedicated medics gathered around the opening that is sparsely decorated with the odd deck chair, a table and a couch, waiting for what pops out. Two giant white panels separate the known from the unknown, a journey the characters take as they move in and out of the tunnel to the stage, the back place (as mentioned above) where the unseen characters dwell. It gives one the impression that what happens at the surface means nothing, which is one of Chekhov’s many points. As Lusty-Cavallari says in the directors notes, the most poignant unseen character is the future, and in this production, the future hovers around, in the unlined beauty of each cast members face, to the faded furniture they sit on, a sense of impending birth – vibrant or still –  in the tunnel traveled to the stage.

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However, it is in the performances themselves that optimism, not of the exciting future Chekhov hoped for, but of the magnificent present, is called forth bringing the rich thrill theatre always excites. These performances are wonderful, particularly the titular sisters, with Maree Raad a thoroughly modern though horribly sad Masha, Henriette Tkalec a suitably other-worldly-beautiful Irina (she looks like an angel this girl) and the wonderful Georgia Coverdale as Olga. Coverdale’s performance was a stand out for me, a little clunky at the start (it took everyone a little time to feel comfortable on this stage) but moving into one of those magnificent performances where gesture, vocal inflection and presence make up the bulk of the delivery, leaving the experience of an enormous character. The image of her with her arms around her sisters, kissing their foreheads is not one that will leave me soon. But really, this is a great cast all round, with everyone taking advantage of their beautifully written lines that remain ironically, accurately Chekhov. There are so many important and wonderful speeches in Three Sisters, and everyone properly commanded the stage when it was their moment to deliver. The direction remained physically with the performances (this was very well decided) so that there was almost no affectation, (Irina was the only character lifted out of herself, and this made the point of her character all the more powerful) just great performances each in their turn and a breathless audience.

Three Sisters is a long play, that asks a lot of its audience. However, this is a great production and an excellent opportunity to see such an important play brought to life. It’s a great contribution to the 2014 Sydney theatre calendar and well worth the trip on a cool Sydney night.

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