Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams reassembles favourite cast and creative collaborators for a new production of Chekhov's family drama
The gnawing feeling of a life unfulfilled that sits at the core of Chekhov’s Three Sisters remains a staple of the human condition, though perhaps one that’s even harder to talk about in 2017; now that we are expected to achieve our dreams through the wellness movement and the relentless work culture paired with the gig economy, isn’t being unfulfilled truly our own fault and therefore not worth talking about?
But we know it’s more complex than that. And in 2017, as it was in 1901 when the play debuted, it is still harder for women to realise their full potential and express their agency and ambition. So we’re ready to have empathetic sorrow for Olga (Alison Bell), Masha (Eryn Jean Norvill), and Irina (Miranda Daughtry), the titular sisters, who are choking on their too-small lives.
Olga has never married and finds her work as a teacher stultifying, though she puts on a brave face for her beloved sisters. Masha “married too young” and detests her husband and the narrowly-defined life of a wife. And Irina wants to serve and do good work (an anomaly for a daughter of privilege), but all anyone seems to care about is who she’ll marry. Men lurk around her, watching her, trying to touch her. She is perpetually, visibly uncomfortable.
Of course, the sisters work harder to make meaning out of misery than their brother Andrei (Brandon McClelland), who literally plays violin while the town burns. He has all the opportunities of his gender, and the same education as his sisters, but refuses to use either; he gambles and he dissociates from the consequences of his actions and from unpleasant life necessities, because he can. He’s a very 2017 symbol of the patriarchy; next to him, even his manipulative, social-climber wife Natasha (Nikki Shiels) seems tasked with unfair labour to compensate for Andrei’s ineffectual existence.
Kip Williams, the millennial artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, has directed a Three Sisters for the current zeitgeist. It’s a play that evokes the anxiety of having too many tabs open in your browser, knowing you’ll never read all the content that’s available to you. It’s unfocused and restless; characters talk around and beyond each other, avoiding eye contact and genuine engagement. There is constant noise – from dueling conversations, from boom boxes and a piano – an unplugged version of our constant information overload.
Upton’s adaptation is casually updated, as is his trademark; it’s laced with the confident profanity and sharp dialogic rhythm of his 2014 production of Children of the Sun, another Russian modernist classic, and the bracing despair of his take on The Present in 2015, another Chekhov. But Three Sisters retains a forced theatricality in its long stretches of philosophising that feels overbearing.
There’s also little respite from the noise and full-tilt philosophy in Alice Babidge’s set, which separates the action behind a wall of glass that later becomes a mirror; there’s little with which to situate ourselves. After interval, when a persistent Russian snow coats the space behind the mirrored wall, the design is at its most successful.
This set feels very much like a sequel to the revolving home of Children of the Sun (designed by David Fleischer) and the country house of The Present (Alice Babidge again); in each of these Upton adaptations, there’s a late change to the set that rips all common markers away and leaves us outside in the Russian air – the actors so small against a sudden vastness. It’s perhaps an easy representation of Gorky and Chekhov’s exploration of the meaningless trappings of the bourgeois life and the search for meaning in a world that offers none, but it’s an effective one. In Three Sisters, that sudden space is almost frightening.
In many ways these three productions feel linked by a shared stylistic DNA – from the interior to zoomed-out exterior of the set design through to the loosely contemporary dress and casual Australian-accented modernist slang. But Three Sisters is the weakest of the STC-Upton Russian plays, largely because Williams hasn’t followed the blueprint; the look is there, but not the feeling. He’s meandered into other spaces – into highly stylised, performative despair and hope between Masha and new lover Vershinin (Mark Leonard Winter), and into a cosier, sweeter take on the tale, anchored by Bell’s loving performance as Olga. The action feels fractured, like the characters are each in separate plays, and the ensemble scenes lack cohesion.
However, there are some beautiful performances. Bell’s Olga is lovely, even if she feels out of step with everyone else, and Norvill’s melancholia careens into anger with surprising force. Harry Greenwood, Rahel Romahn, and Anthony Brandon Wong provide strong support as key players in the sisters’ orbit, and Wong’s take on a perpetually-drunk doctor who has lost his integrity has an unusual and rewarding stillness, a telegraph of despair.
It’s despair that succeeds the most in this production, otherwise so uncomfortable with itself that it resists connecting with the audience. That despair and discomfort is at its best in the hands of recent NIDA grad Miranda Daughtry, and in many ways this production belongs to her young Irina. Barely an adult when the play begins, she’s not really interested in men yet, or at all – or at least, not the ones around her – and watching her turn into an object, frightened into silence by aggressive advances, silenced by waves of men and the women who insist she needs them, is heartbreaking.
When the life has been pushed out of Irina, we feel it the most, and Daughtry is remarkable here. In 2017, there are still few women who can’t relate to the predatory nature of men as a foil to their ambition, and Daughtry’s slowly crushed idealism feels like recognition of the ways women are destroyed by men who wield fear and a woman’s limited options as a weapon. Her story is a jewel in this confused production, elevating it into something that could make you weep.