I know you don’t like critics because Abbi read out a lot of reviews of famous Chekhov productions very fast, wearing a ruff and sequined hot pants. But I promise I won’t rate you out of five or patronise you with a gold star or give you a quotable soundbite to put on your posters. Even though I know you got four stars from The Times and The Guardian and The Stage because it says so on the back of the play text, which I bought because I had to take a piece of the show away with me.
I’m not going to write what happens because nothing happens in Chekhov and by getting rid of the men in Three Sisters, who have most of the lines and do most of the happening, your version steps out of the linear narrative of nothing happening. You pile up images that don’t necessarily fit together or get explained. You heap them up into something bigger, like the pile of discarded costumes in the corner of the stage. Here are some of my favourites:
-Olga, Irina and Masha draped across furniture in exquisite ennui
-The ‘Tick-Tock Tick-Tock’ ticker tape machine
-The Spice Girls party costumes
-Olga piling up books on Masha’s chest and standing on top of them – the weight of the canon
-The Chekhov cheerleader dance – ‘Give me a C-H-E-K-H-O-V!’
-Olga snogging a bust of Chekhov
-The three sisters dressed in bear suits
-Irina lying across the piano keys
There are fewer dance bits in this one than Two Man Show but more songs and I wondered why. I thought the songs were great. A few times I wanted to get up and dance, which is not an urge I normally have, but no-one else was and I thought it’d be weird so I didn’t. I liked how each of you got your moment in the spotlight: Chloe Rianna’s banging drum solo; Yoon-Ji Kim’s double-stopping violin piece; Irina’s (Becky Wilkie’s) octave-spanning turn on the piano; Olga’s Katie Perry and Sia-inspired tribute to having fun (Helen Goalen’s); Masha’s (Abbi Greenland’s) power ballad about the kind of man she wants in her life. Consciously virtuosic moments that weren’t allowed to compromise the ensemble. I liked how you watched and listened to each other when it wasn’t your turn to make noise.
Ever since I saw The Writer by Ella Hickson I’ve been thinking about the gendering of artistic genius and seeing your show has helped me make more sense of that show. The incompatibility of the expectations of women to be ‘good’ and obey the rules with a conception of genius that is somehow wild and lawless and therefore male – even though the rules have been constructed to shore up the male genius’s authority. Olga’s line, ‘I wasted so much time in my twenties being anxious and trying to be good at everything’ really resonated with me. I was painfully ‘good’ at school and part of me still wants to be perceived as ‘good’. Irina intones ‘good toes, naughty toes’ as her sisters demonstrate ballet positions. It made me remember that I got thrown out of ballet because I found it boring. I wanted to take off my skirt instead of skipping around the room. In the wake of #metoo, I’ve read a number of articles mourning the loss of the art that women could have created were it not for male harassers. Three Sisters frames the question more positively: What art could we make if we stopped trying to be ‘good’ on patriarchal terms?
But I liked how you don’t offer ‘genius’ as an uncomplicated solution to this. In Three Sisters to be a genius is to be a plaster-cast bust, hollow, gently revolving on its pedestal. Hickson’s Writer is a genius in male form. Every time she talks about writing, however rich and strange her metaphors, it is individualistic. In the last scene, she fucks her black female partner with a dildo on the sofa, caring only for her pleasure and getting off on power. It seemed to be saying, for women to become great artists, they have to get themselves penises and screw over the women around them, reproducing the canon homosocially. I think what upset me about that production (apart from its representation of queer women) was that I couldn’t tell whether I was supposed to condemn the Writer or root for her. I couldn’t work out its politics and where to situate my own in relation to them. If I admit that I found the form of The Writer unsatisfying, does that mean that I have internalised patriarchal standards of ‘good’ art? Or does it mean that I found the form of The Writer unsatisfying? The Writer interrogates the gendering of forms and gets stuck. All theatrical forms and relationships seem tainted by the patriarchy. Through the songs and crazy costumes, Three Sisters goes a lot further in actually putting alternative forms into practice.
I took Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life with me to read on the train and this bit seems really relevant:
‘Arms remind us too that labour, who works for whom, is a feminist issue. Labor includes reproductive labor: the labor of reproducing life; the labor of reproducig the conditions that enable others to live….Any feminism that lives up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being arms by employing other women to take up their place. Feminism needs to refuse this division of labor, this freeing up of time and energy for some by the employment of the limbs of others. If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others.’
Your solution to the ‘good girl’ dilemma is not to impersonate male genius. Your solution is work. Not Irina’s bourgeois fantasy of work to give some kind of meaning to her life. But the work of making art. Creative work is work. We see you change your costumes and sweat and get out of breath. Creative work is political work. You sing:
Work work work
Work for more
The future will be beautiful
If we work
It’s out fucking duty to
Work work work
Work to continue
This work is about the collective not the individual, smashing the characters out of their enforced ennui, taking us out of the show. I like how at the end all of you are sitting together in the drawing room, hugging, taking up space. I came out of The Writer feeling stuck and confused and complicit and uneasy. I came out of Three Sisters ready to roll up my sleeves and fuck shit up.
Really I just want to ask to join your band, please. I can’t play a musical instrument but I’d be alright as a backing singer. And I’m ready to work.
Three Sisters is on at the Yard Theatre until 9th May. Book tickets here.