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.

An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****

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An Adventure

Bush Theatre, 26th September 2018

Now I cannot pretend that, when the lovely people at the Bush moved the matinee performance of An Adventure that I attended forward by an hour, and indicated it had metamorphosed into a three hour plus extravaganza, I wasn’t concerned. And reading the proper reviews, which were variable, but generally pointed to narrative ambition trumping dramatic momentum, didn’t help.

Well I can report that this is, give or take, a wonderful story, superbly, and smartly, told. The Bush is still claiming a 3 hour 15 minute running time but it isn’t, it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near it, and there are a couple of intervals to catch your anyway. If anything I would have liked, whisper it, a bit more. It kicks off with feisty Gudjarati Jyoti, ostensibly 16, interviewing callow Rasik, ostensibly 22, one of the five suitors chosen by her father, on a stormy night on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in post-partition India in 1954. Not best qualified, Rasik doesn’t start his wooing too well but eventually, after a little sparring, Jyoti warms to him and the match is made. It is a cracking opening scene with emotional warmth set against the non-naturalistic set of Rosanna Vize, a golden plinth flanked by Louise Rhodes-Brown’s video designs (which help to anchor time and place throughout). The second scene, on a beach where Rasik, who can’t swim, clings on to Jyoti, is no less powerful and is the metaphor from which the rest of the story unfolds.

We then track the couple through Nairobi, during the fight for Kenyan independence in the late 1950’s, where Rasik goes into business with patriot David and buys him land, to London where the couple arrive in 1968, through the 1970’s, and daughter Sonal, and back to India, for the funeral of Joyti’s mother, where we meet niece Joy, and then finally Nairobi, in the present day. Along the way we see the India diaspora experience unfold, with exposition which generally doesn’t interrupt the flow, entwined with the personal journey of the couple. Home, emigration, immigration, post-colonialism, racism, gender roles, political activism, ageing, parenthood, the tyranny of everyday life, in fact just about everything that matters, is lightly ticked off along the way, but all is coherent.

The first part, (and the finale), in Kenya, is the most pointed in terms of political message, contrasting Kikuyu David’s support for violent Mau-Mau resistance with Rasik’s more pragmatic faith in a peaceful transition. This in turn contrasts with the personal politics of Jyoti who joins a union and campaigns to improve the conditions of British Asian working women in the 1970s. At the same time we see the racism that Rasik endures in his work and the strains that the struggle to get on put on their marriage. We see the next generation in the shape of Sonal looking to move up and on through education and travel encountering Jyoti’s motherly resistance.

This is though more a love story than history lesson and is all the more successful for it. In the final scenes, with the couple in their seventies, Rasik’s sight failing and mobility impaired, they look back and this, frankly, is where it really connected emotionally. I cannot claim to understand the journey of Jyoti and Rasik but I can certainly empathise with the prosaic intimacy of their relationship. For these final scenes Jyoti and Rasik are played by Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingam, but you can still feel the essence of the characters shaped by the superb Anjana Vasan and Shubham Saraf in the earlier years. Jyoti may be headstrong but her inner strength shines through from the off. Rasik may be less certain, earnest in his youth, irascible in his old age, but they make an entirely believable couple. Writer Vinay Patel based his story on the life of his grandparents which is maybe just why.

Mr Patel’s expansive tale wears its learning pretty lightly. As with his previous work, notably his play True Brits and his TV drama Murdered By My Father, he shows that he has a way with story and character and can conjure up a lot of content from relatively straightforward starting points. An Adventure is more ambitious that his previous works, and maybe this time he has tried to pack a bit too much in to create his odyssey of marriage, but it is still a very entertaining and skilful attempt. I imagine he is a confident young man and I suspect he believes, as do I, that he will get even better from here. Madani Younis is, unsurprisingly, a completely sympathetic directorial presence; you get the feeling writer and director brought the best out of each other from the very start of the project. It will be very interesting to see what Mr Younis brings to the South Bank in his new role.

The cast, including a resolute Martins Imhangbe as David and impressive work from Aysha Kala as Sonal/Joy, is well matched to character, though, for me, Anjana Vasan stood out, as she did Life of Galileo at the Young Vic and Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the NT. Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Ed Clarke’s sound were able to navigate the intimate and expansive as the story demanded.

Six actors and seven characters, (well eight when you include younger daughter Roshni who literally phones in at the end), is not a lot to span this much history and geography. Then again the best way in drama to understand the big stuff is to see its repercussions at the human level. This is where Vinay Patel’s play works. He gets away with shoehorning in maybe just a bit too much of what he wantt to say because the characters are so real and the dialogue, with a few overly dreamy, symbolic interruptions, so apothegmatic. Above all there is that fearless enthusiasm for the power of drama that the best writers convey which makes this, for all its obvious faults, work.