To know, to know: Genesian Theatre’s Three Sisters

This review was written for artsHub.

First performed in 1901, Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a play about love, the question (and delusion) of love, and the notion of happiness and/or contentedness. Perhaps not as bleak as Ivanov, or as elegantly poignant as The Seagull, Three Sisters is still undeniably Chekhovian in its depiction of a group of people caught up in their foibles and their lives, with much philosophising and talk of fate and the future that lies ahead of them. The three Pozorov sisters – Olga, Masha, and Irina – are stuck in a provincial town hundreds of miles from Moscow, and one day dream of returning to their beloved city; fate, however, has other ideas, and life overtakes them, further anchoring them to the small town. In one sense, it is a comedy in the Chekhovian sense, but at the same time it is very much a drama. This production at the Genesian Theatre is undeniably a comedy, but not as Chekhov ever intended it.

Using Brian Friel’s 1981 version, director Timothy Bennett (with Roger Gimblett) have managed to turn the aching poignancy and heartbreak that sits at the heart of this play – the quietly personal dramas that we try to disguise in our daily lives – into something akin to a drawing-room comedy of bumbling entrances, bad manners, and silly walks. Characters enter suddenly, for no apparent reason, utter a line, and depart immediately; lines are mistimed, misread, misinterpreted, and delivered to no one in particular. A lot of this production feels quite superficial – in that there is no depth to the characters, to the setting, to their plight, to their concerns and fears – and this is reflected in the playing: no character (or, perhaps more accurately, no actor) seems to have any motive or intention for being on stage during a scene, no reason for saying what they do. The Latin phrases which pepper Kulygin’s lines, and the French that peppers Natasha’s, seem out of place here, no matter how well-learned or seamless they might appear in Friel’s adaptation, and it seems the cast has little idea why they are included in the text.
Perhaps this seems harsh or cruel, given that the Genesian Theatre’s remit is very much as an amateur theatre company with room for everyone to have a go and experience the craft of theatre-making, but I certainly don’t mean it that way; I always admire companies who are up to the challenge of Chekhov, but here it seems the challenge was perhaps too great. Chekhov writes a lot of the subtext and action in the play into the fabric of the play – in the entrances and exits of characters, into the lines immediately preceding an entrance, from how characters talk about each other – and this allows an actor to enter knowing who their character is, why there are entering, and where they are going, but these clues can often go undetected or not taken full advantage of, as is the case here. There are some heartbreaking moments in Three Sisters – a couple of Irina’s monologues spring to mind, as does Olga’s closing speech at the end of the fourth act – but they are overshadowed and affected here by a tendency for characters to veer towards caricature, and for everything to be larger or more melodramatic – more stilted – than it needs to be. “I’m so happy, happy, happy,” Kulygin says, almost bouncing around; his wife Masha replies emphatically, “I’m so bored, bored, bored.”
While the production aims for period fidelity through Owen Gimblett’s (sometimes flimsy) set and Peter Henson’s costumes, a lot of the nuance and potency of Chekhov’s unique brand of poignant comedy and despair are lost in translation, and it makes for a muddled and unintentionally comedic evening. “If only we knew,” Olga says in the play’s closing moments. “If only we knew.” Indeed.

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