September 01, 2011

Timelessness of Chekhov’s exiles

August 9, 2011

Three Sisters
by Anton Chekhov
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
August 9. Tickets $ 29 – $59. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until August 28.

In Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the second last of the extraordinary quartet of plays he wrote between 1895 and the year of his death in 1904, the characters have often been described as exiles – in time, as well as place. Not only are the Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrey stuck in some god-forsaken Russian garrison town, they, and all their intense introspective circle, are also preoccupied with any time but the present.

For the youngest sister Irina it is when she lived in Moscow, the Baron Tuzenbach muses over future social changes and “a healthy storm brewing in twenty or thirty years time,“ for the visiting army officer Vershinin, it is the world of three hundred, even a thousand, years hence which beckons and consoles.

Perhaps it is for this reason that State Theatre director Adam Cook has staged his production in the middle of what looks like a massive archaeological dig. As the play opens, like BBC-TV’s Time Team, actors in hard hats and safety vests make inventories and brush dirt particles off the remnants of a 19th century drawing room – rescued and partly excavated from the encroaches of obliterating time. Cook’s concept is a bold one, but he and co-designer Gavan Swift have also literally created a giant mud-caked hole for themselves – and, despite three hours of often-compelling performances, a predicament the production can’t quite dig its way out of either.

For the most part, the large cast manages well what the critic Kenneth Tynan once called the “strange dynamic apathy” of Chekhov’s characters. Ksenja Logos is excellent as the defiant, ironic Masha, bored by her husband Kulygin (adroitly played by Geoff Revell) and desperately lost to Peter O‘Brien’s poignantly marooned Vershinin. Carmel Johnson is steadfast as Olga, Kate Cheel is all tears and brittle disappointment as Irina. Nadia Rossi is shrewish as the usurping Natasha and Patrick Graham’s Andrey is especially vivid in Act 4, Bridget Walters and Edwin Hodgeman bring sprightly detail to the old retainers and, among the officers and gentlemen, Renato Musolino and Nathan O’Keefe are highlights as the neurotically quarrelling Tuzenbach and Solyony, as is Michael Habib as the cynical, Falstaffian doctor, Chebutykin.

These characters talk about worlds and time elsewhere but the play is comically, movingly and disturbingly about the present. It is what makes Chekhov such a great dramatist that these Russians from another century, with strange names and archaic customs speak to us so vividly about their inner thoughts and feelings and their absurdist sense of time and life being out of joint. Adam Cook understands this, but, with his distracting décor and overpowering archaeology, he risks reducing them to curious specimens instead of images of ourselves.

Murray Bramwell

Published in slightly abridged form as :
“Timelessness of Chekhov’s exiles …” The Australian , August 11, 2011, p.14.

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