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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Gala Gordon, Mariah Gale and Vanessa Kirby/ Ph: Simon Annand

In the week that saw Brian Friel's new and – unlikely as it may seem – improved version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler arrive at the Old Vic stage, just up the road, the Young Vic hosted the premiere of a thrillingly reworked version of another classic, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters.

Australian writer/director Benedict Andrews has swatted aside all the conventions that normally accompany a production of Chekhov, especially the serious-minded reverence that can make the Russian master's work as stodgy as gravy. 

Johannes Schutz's monochrome and minimalist set places most of the action on a vast, grey platform. Above hangs a block of grey Russian winter sky. Under this, pall Russian pop music plays tinnily on a radio. These early signs that Chekhov veterans are in for a rude awakening prove well founded. This is a 21st century Three Sisters. Andrews has scattered the dialogue with four-letter swearing; the Russian military commanded by William Houston's civilised and sonorous Colonel Vershinin is, we feel, engaged in post-Soviet conflicts; and Vanessa Kirby's Masha in particular is the kind of girl who might go clubbing if she didn't have such contempt for the Russian provincial town in which she lives.

But the production's defining moment arrives when you expect the Pozorovs and their guests to casually perform a comforting “raggedy waltz,” as it's described in Chekhov's text. But what we get is a thrilling rendition of grunge band Nirvana's masterpiece “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a moment that captures perfectly the spirit of rebellion in which Andrews saturates the play.

And yet one of the reasons the production works so well is that it's anchored with the kind of performances that would grace any traditional version. Kirby's Masha displays a dangerous, aristocratic kind of impatience with the world, while Gala Gordon as Irina and Mariah Gale as Olga move from the blushing hope of youth to the kind of stoicism usually seen in elderly widows. Among the outstanding supporting cast is Danny Kirrane as the sisters' disappointed and disappointing brother Andrey, Michael Feats as the dissolute doctor Chebutykin, and a deeply moving Sam Troughton as the doomed Tuzenbach.

There's one problem, often a sticking point with classics given a contemporary updating: It's not clear who these people are. Nor why in this day and age the hopes of three well-educated women have been “choked like weeds,” leaving them stranded in a provincial town unable to fulfill their dream of seeing Moscow. You could argue that the Pozorovs’ condition is now more self-inflected than ever. But I for one don't buy it. If Andrews solves that problem, this updated version will demand to be revived for a long time to come.


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