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.

The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sur-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead, Woo hoo.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

One for Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre ****

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One For Sorrow

Royal Court Theatre, 5th July 2018

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. It takes me so long to get round to seeing and commenting on anything that any post here is worse than useless to the unlucky reader who inadvertently stumbles across it. And all it ever does is recycle far more learned opinions from more talented commentators and bloggers. I can’t be doing with social media so no-one gets to hear about it anyway. I could pretend I like it that way but that would be untrue: my ego needs as much stroking as the next man or woman. I’m just a bit intimidated by this new world of immediate communication.

Sometimes, as here with One for Sorrow, I even momentarily forget what is is that I have seen. Which, in essence, is why I keep going. For there is no better way to learn than writing stuff down and learning through consuming culture is where I am at. So here we go again.

The premise for One for Sorrow was intriguing if not entirely novel – young, privileged, “middle-class”, idealist type invites “victim” of attack in London into the family home despite the misgivings of her liberal family – and playwright Cordelia Lynn was, by all accounts, someone worth listening too. The Royal Court certainly believes in her talent. And I can confirm that, broadly, they are right (no surprise there), and that the play delivers on its promise, even if it does get a little stuck in a cul-de-sac plot-wise towards the end.

Irfan Shamji, who stole the show in Joe White’s excellent debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****), plays the stranger John. The scene is set with his breathless voiceover as we sit in total darkness. He has a gentle, yet intense, presence that convinces you that he might just be the perpetrator, rather than the victim, of the atrocities that have descended on the capital. Pearl Chanda captures elder daughter Imogen’s air of stubborn righteousness, but also her desire to test her own, and her family’s, commitment to the politics of tolerance. When John turns up after responding to Imogen’s social media invitation to help he is understandably agitated and disheveled but his defensiveness, rucksack and refusal to remove his coat, sow the first seeds of doubt in the family. The sublime Sarah Woodward and the unshowy Neil Dudgeon are perfectly cast as Guardianista parents Emma and Bill, and Kitty Archer, as the breezily self-absorbed, excitable younger daughter Chloe, on her stage debut, also turns in a fine performance to complete the quintet. Ms Lynn has a way of pinpointing not just what this family would say if such an existential threat were posed to them but exactly how they would say it. Shades of Pinter, whose estate commissioned this play.

As the scale of the terror outside becomes apparent, up to and including gunshots on the surrounding streets, and a direct personal connection is unveiled, the tensions within the family, catalysed by John, ratchet up, and the gulf between what they say and how they act, widens. John’s sympathies, and his engineering knowledge, create greater uncertainty and, to Imogen’s disgust, the rest of the family turns on him. The problem is that, in order to maintain the suspense, “is he or isn’t he”, the plot does go round in circles somewhat and the arguments become a little over-extended. However with writing, acting and directing, from the ever reliable James MacDonald, of this quality it is pretty easy to forgive the meandering momentum in the second half.

The culture of fear (and fascination) of terrorist violence, the hypocrisy of the “liberal elite” (that’s me), the impetuosity of youth, the hollowness of hashtag activism, all are eloquently exposed. The title comes from a story Imogen tells about a trapped magpie in the house, bird symbolism being de riguer in London theatre recently. I was reminded of Winter Solstice, the superb play by Roland Schimmelpfenning, which, taking different subject matter also skewered the crisis of liberalism in Western society.

It was a warm day outside, (state the bleedin’ obvious why don’t you Tourist), so I can’t be sure if a dial turn on the air-con, or deliberation, accounted for the streaks of moisture that emerged on the walls of Laura Hopkin’s efficient set but it certainly helped add to the unsettling tenor of the play, alongside Max Pappenheim’s dynamic sound design.

Ms Lynn has the dramatic knack, no doubt about that. I suspect there is much more to come from her pen. She also writes opera librettos apparently and is a mean pianist. She’s only 29.