Three Sisters, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

A clock is ticking in the Prozorov household. Minutes pass loudly, inexorably, mercilessly. When the hour noisily announces itself, each chime a dagger for the siblings who count the seconds of their self-imposed exile, the purgatorial tenor of the Southwark Playhouse’s new imagining of Three Sisters is made immediately clear. The century might have changed, but precious little else has. As Tusenbach would put it, “life is always life”.

Anya Reiss’ updating, which transplants the Prozorovs to the modern day, is more striking for its fidelity than its revision. All the outlines of Chekhov’s play are there; only some of the shades have been altered. The provincial Russian town of the original is swapped for a British Embassy in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, with queasy echoes of colonialism, while the semi-mythical escape of Moscow has been replaced by London. The modernising touches, meanwhile, are all feather light: a mobile phone here, a newspaper there. Reiss’ take on the play is even – more so than most versions – loyal to Chekhov’s often neglected comedy, tugging on some of the more absurd strands of its protagonists’ situation.

So how do you answer for the sisters’ immobility when they could just hop on a plane home tomorrow? Wisely, the barriers that Reiss and director Russell Bolam erect are all psychological rather than geographical, the greater ease of movement heightening the characters’ own deadening apathy. Irina’s cry of “I want to go home” at the end of the first half, delivered with wine glass in hand by Holliday Grainger, is more whining than despairing. Here, more than ever, the sisters’ own self-sabotage and navel gazing jump to the fore.

It helps that Three Sisters is one of those plays that offers new aspects to the view on each return visit. Even without a bold, bracing treatment, the play is constantly teasing out new emphases, different scenes or lines snagging on the mind each time. Placed in a modern context, it is the speeches about work that catch the ear, acquiring new resonances in a political landscape where the idea of hard work has become a tool for dividing those whom the system disadvantages. Class relations (and, as an added dimension, racial tensions) are also sharpened, with the largely invisible locals hovering like a ghostly presence at the edges of the production. As Olga, Masha and Irina blindly wallow in their own misery, you almost wish for a yell of “check your privilege”.

In Bolam’s straightforward but polished production, slight traces of the past cling to performances that are otherwise grounded in the here and now. Paul McGann’s quietly commanding Vershinin, voice dripping with authority, could almost be dropped into any era, his futile philosophising barely interrupted, as could Michael Garner’s mildly grumbling Chebutykin. The sisters, meanwhile, are largely as we expect them, even if they have acquired new gadgets. Emily Taaffe is the most impressive of the trio, as a painfully bored Masha who finds a violent release in her passion for Vershinin, while Olivia Hallinan as Olga and Holliday Grainger as Irina are suitably maternal and dreamy respectively.

But the shift of time and location, while working surprisingly well, seems at a loss for what it has to contribute to Chekhov’s existential questioning. The parallels are neat, but only occasionally illuminating. If the play’s timelessness is its point, then the historical context is almost irrelevant. For this reason, Three Sisters often works best when located in a sort of nowhereland, a setting with suggestions of both then and now. While Benedict Andrews’ striking production at the Young Vic effortlessly unmoored itself from time, the subtle yet insistent modernity of this version does not quite convince, in spite of all the elegance of its execution. The play might time travel with impressive ease in Reiss and Bolam’s hands, but the question that lingers underneath it all is why?

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Anya Reiss: Navigating Chekhov

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The moment from Benedict Andrews’ bracing new adaptation of Three Sisters on which many responses seem to have fixated is its glorious, vodka-drenched rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – moody Russian existentialism blasted into contemporary, head-banging anarchy. But there is just as much contemporary resonance in Vershinin’s fading optimism for the future, an act of looking forward that feels tainted by the creeping threats of environmental crisis, or in Andrey’s disillusioned, shell suit-clad lethargy. The times are yet to outpace Chekhov.

As if to prove this continuing relevance, a sudden rash of new productions is rapidly spreading across London, including two contrasting Uncle Vanyas about to lock horns on the West End. If British theatre is currently intoxicated by Chekhov, however, his latest adaptor is remarkably immune. Speaking about the origins of the modernised version ofThe Seagull that opens at the Southwark Playhouse later this month, adding to this mounting wave of revivals, writer Anya Reiss bluntly confesses, “I’d never been particularly grabbed by Chekhov”. Approached by director Russell Bolam to update the classic play, her first reaction was to remember her lack of engagement when forced to study the text at school, and only when reading again with an eye to adapt could she begin to tease out some of the play’s enduring appeal.

“I understood what there was within that story and the characters and I saw that I’d been held back by its context,” Reiss says of her re-reading of the play. “We were always made to read things with a very reverential eye and it was quite hard, so reading it again and knowing I had permission to tear it up a little made me see what it was worth.”

Despite speaking of tearing up the text, Reiss is quick to correct herself when I press her on that phrase, clarifying that the approach she and Bolam have taken is one of respect mingled with reinterpretation. “We’ve deliberately not taken a sledgehammer to it,” she is keen to emphasise, characterising their production as one that treads the middle ground between faithful adaptation and radical revision. “I feel like I’ve tried to be true to the stories and the characters and the themes, and once you do that you’ve got more permission to play with the language.”

Reiss also feels that there is inherently more flexibility when working with plays in translation, as it’s impossible to be entirely faithful to the original. “Everything you read is always someone’s slant on it, so I felt freer to do my own thing – it’s what you have to do,” she says. “If I was trying to update Shakespeare by putting it in modern language I’d feel like a twat, but when it’s already not Chekhov’s phrases you’ve got more freedom with it.”

One of the integral elements of Chekhov’s play is its remote farmland setting, a space distinctly removed from Moscow and its seductive promises of fame and fortune. To replicate this “real sense of isolation”, Reiss and Bolam have relocated the scenes to modern day Isle of Man, a location at a definite remove from the lure of urban excitement. Reiss explains that she began by tackling these crucial points of contextual tension, working out their contemporary equivalents. “It was those questions and the new setting that did it all; they’re the key pinpoints, so once you change those everything else follows along with it.”

Although there are some elements of Chekhov’s nineteenth-century Russian setting that don’t have an obvious modern counterpart – “there was a lot of stuff about horses, that was the main problem,” Reiss laughs – on the whole she says that the play translated quite smoothly. “Compared to other Chekhovs I think it’s quite easy to update, because it’s all about fame and love and art, and those are kind of eternal things,” Reiss explains, contrasting this with the immobility of the Prozorov sisters, a predicament that is harder to explain in a world of international travel. “The crux problems they have are very personal,” she goes on, “they’re not time-specific.”

As timeless as the characters’ situation may be, I wonder how the playwright is handling the wider implications of playing with a classic text. Discussions about Reiss inevitably veer towards her precocity and the astonishment that attended her debut play Spur of the Moment, written when she was just 17. Our conversation actively eschews this typical focus on her youth – Reiss is still shy of her 21st birthday, with two Royal Court productions already under her belt – but my question about the level of pressure attached to this new production is implicitly coloured by the expectations that have settled on Reiss’ shoulders at such an early stage in her career. This is greeted, however, with a surprising lack of concern.

“It’s had the opposite effect,” says Reiss in response to my suggestion that taking on such a famous text might carry with it a certain level of trepidation. “It’s made me more relaxed because a lot of it isn’t really my problem. If you don’t like it then a lot of that’s Chekhov, it’s not really me.” With the same casual frankness that characterises the playwright’s tone throughout our conversation, Reiss goes on to admit that there was something lazily enjoyable about writing a play in which plot and characters were already taken care of, removing a layer of anxiety from the writing process.

While apparently unflustered by the possible pressures of tackling Chekhov, however, Reiss is at pains to deflect any suspicions that her version will be pointedly wedded to the present. “You do a modern adaptation, but you don’t want it to be too smug and wink-wink, with lots of references to Twitter and X Factor,” she says, deliberately naming modern touchstones that might easily be applied to the desire for fame that is explored in the play. “The reason you’re updating it is to demonstrate that what it’s about is eternal, so to then make it very much about issues we have now doesn’t serve the play in the same way.”

In the midst of these negotiations of adaptation, I mention Lyn Gardner’s recent piece about the timidity that often goes hand in hand with the approach taken to classic plays by British directors – a fitting reference point, given that Gardner’s comparison is Australian director Andrews’ version of Three Sisters. The same criticism might arguably be levelled at writers working with these classic texts in translation, all earnestly trying to stay true to the author’s intention, that enshrined tenet of British theatre. Do we need to be more open to interpretation?

“That idea that it has to be either one or the other can be quite alienating,” Reiss suggests, recoiling slightly from both the reverential and the radical. It need not necessarily be a basic choice between Nirvana and museum piece, as much as the commentary surrounding these plays might have us believe. The tactic chosen by Reiss and Bolam is to navigate a path somewhere between the two extremes. “You feel like you either have to love it in this very faithful way or you have to take a hammer to it, and I think there’s a middle ground that isn’t explored as much as it could be. That’s what we’re trying to explore.”