Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange

OK, so I'm off to the Royal Exchange to see Three Sisters, and I'm excited because I won't ever forget the great Uncle Vanya I once saw there with Leo McKern and Eleanor Bron - the scene where he brings the flowers is still with me, and I can still fill up remembering it. Pure Chekhov, it was, heartbreaking, utterly true to his insight into human longing and disappointment.

I take my seat in the first gallery. I look down. Why does this round stage, which can seem intimate even from the high-up second gallery, look so vast and far away? Across the other side, horizontally to me, is a long dinner table (the table where the soldiers will sit, their conversation undercutting that of the three sisters), and it seems immense yet miles distant, divided from us by (admittedly transparent) pillars. I feel I can't see it properly. I push my glasses up my nose, but I can't see it any better. Already I feel excluded from the space of this play.

The action begins, much nearer to us than the table, directly below: on our side of the stage Masha and Olga sit in separate spaces, Olga on a settle, Masha at a piano, Olga talking to Masha across the space. Well, I know this is the point, that Masha, churning with frustration, is cutting off, but somehow I can't join her, psychologically, in her space. I can't join Olga either, I'm watching them both from outside, and yet without focus: I can't take them both in at once and have to keep switching my attention from one to the other. Partly I think it's the performances, or Sarah Francom's direction, but most of all, I think, it's the set design of this production: presumably symbolically, but visually impossibly, the central space is constantly empty and the characters most frequently separated by this abyss.

It's like a tableau, this production of this play by this playwright whose concerns and approach were above all internal, psychological. And there's no moment of real stillness in a play which demands above all moments of stillness, and all that longing, all that desire, all that erotic tension between Vershinin and Masha, were - from my vantage point, at any rate - lost.

By the second act I had given up. Gauzes hung from the flies to the floor, shrouding the beds - set apart again around an empty space - and cutting us off from the characters and the action. Behind the gauze curtains the faces are indistinct and overall the characters are lost in the infinite space which the curtains define - which again may be symbolic of their condition but precludes the internal focus which the play requires. In the final act tree-trunks descended in true RX tradition, spindly but placed around the edges and cutting off the view of any actor directly opposite the ones you were sitting nearby.

Perhaps it was no wonder that the main laughs from the audience were at the outdated social mores...

Alfred Hickling thinks the problem is the play, but personally I think Chekhov and Stanislavski might just be having a bit of a twist in their graves.
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