Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review *****

heisenbergbohr

Copenhagen

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 6th September 2018

Michael Frayn wrote the funniest stage comedy of all time. Noises Off. OK well maybe it is only is the funniest of those comedies that I have seen. And maybe the two productions that I have seen, the NT one from 2000/2001 directed by Jeremy Sams, and the 2011/2012 Old Vic revival directed by Lindsay Posner, show it off to best effect. And the fact that Mr Frayn has sharpened it up with re-writes since it first appeared in 1982 helps. It is a farce about a farce about a farce and is brilliantly constructed. For sure the belly aches come from the visual humour and slapstick but real comedy also emerges from the characters “on” snd “off” stage personas and their relationships. Everyone should see this once in their life, (but not the film version – the whole point of this is that it is a theatrical experience and the film is rubbish). LD remembers it as the funniest thing she has seen on stage and she was only 10 at the time.

We also have to thank Mr Frayn for his pitch perfect English adaptations of Chekhov. The magic of Chekhov can prove elusive but a text from MF gives a good chance for a production of walking the tightrope between pathos and comedy. There are his novels as well. I have though, until now, never seen either of his more recent dramatic triumphs, Democracy or Copenhagen.

So thanks to Chichester Festival Theatre for putting on this revival. And to recruiting a cast of the calibre of Charles Edwards, Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson. And to persuading, if he needed persuading, Michael Blakemore, who directed the NT premiere in 1998 to wave his magic directorial wand over this revival.

Copenhagen is not quite a perfect play. But it is so close that it barely matters. Mr Frayn is a very, very clever man. So naturally he takes a very, very big subject for Copenhagen. The is the imagined conversation between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Nazi occupied Copenhagen during WWII about whether eminent nuclear physicists could or should attempt to prevent the building of a nuclear bomb. The exact circumstances of the meeting in 1941 are unclear from their writings, though Bohr seemed to react angrily to whatever Heisenberg brought to him, and there has been much subsequent debate, in part fuelled by MF’s play, about exactly what happened. Out of this admittedly dramatic conceit MF constructs a play of intense philosophical enquiry, offers us both a science and a history lesson, shows the loving and fraught relationships between the eminent Bohr (then 55), his wife and amanuensis Margarethe and his one time student Heisenberg (39), and. as if that wasn’t enough, reminds us of the tension between the “objective” universe around us and our “subjective” view of that world that our consciousness constructs.

The memories of the meeting between the two physicists are played out in various ways, three times “another draft”. Time is not linear. We see several versions of events. The protagonists do not always occupy the same time and place. It is not always clear if they are talking to each other or to us the audience. This “plot” and the movement of the actors mirrors the behaviour of atomic particles in Peter J Davison’s monochromatic set. Did Heisenberg come to warn Bohr and, by implication, the allies about the Nazi nuclear programme? Or did he just want approval from his mentor? Or was he fishing for technical information on what was needed to trigger the required chain reaction? Did Bohr put him off the scent? How fervent was Heisenberg’s patriotism? Or his morality? Was he oblivious to what his country was doing? Did he help the half-Jewish Bohr and Margarethe escape from Denmark? How “guilty” did the scientists feel when looking back and are they trying to assuage that guilt – it was Bohr who ended up in Los Alamos after all?

MF cleverly uses anecdotes and the past history of the three protagonists to draw parallels with the scientific concepts they discuss. Skiing and table tennis act as metaphors to contrast the two men’s characters and approaches to scientific enquiry as well as a way in to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity principle. A pre-war train journey by Bohr shows how electron spin theory was disseminated across Europe and his movements mirror that of the particles he describes. A card game where Bohr bluffs by mistake points up the risk of nuclear proliferation. Toys and weapons are elided. The death by drowning of one of Bohr’s sons, Christian recurs as a motif for what might have happened if someone or something had intervened. (The video backdrop courtesy of Nina Dunn has a lot of waves, alluding to the drowning and presumably wave theory). There’s probably loads more I missed.

Even with these “simplifying” devices, (which, as the two scientists remind each other to revert to “plain” language for Margarethe’s sake, can sometimes patronise), this is dense stuff. But it doesn’t feel like it. Aside from one tiny slip, Paul Jesson as Bohr and, especially, Charles Edwards as Heisenberg, are utterly on top of the language, and Michael Blakemore’s direction ensures the delivery is perfectly placed. Patricia Hodge avoids smothering Margarethe with an overly haughty demeanour, protective of her husband and suspicious of Heisenberg, the nucleus revealing the human failings of both.

As I understand it, and I don’t, the Copenhagen Interpretation was proposed by Bohr and Heisenberg before the war as a way to reconcile different theories of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities of what might happen in physical systems. The act of measurement affects the system to reduce to the one result that is observed. Like what MF is doing with the play. With us doing the measuring. Though we cannot be sure of the result.

Big ideas, and especially big scientific ideas, can often lead to big drama. But dramatists can often overreach themselves or retreat back into the human and not push us intellectually as hard as they should. Copenhagen, like Brecht’s Life of Galileo, doesn’t make that mistake. One of the best plays I have ever seen and, once fizzing, a near perfect production.