The enormous light-box hovers across the entire ceiling of the Young Vic space like the mothership of some vast fleet of invading tanning-beds. Below the cast toil on the stage’s flat expanse; an enormous runway formed of tables, as trapped between land and sky Chekhov’s doomed aristocrats play out their lives. Far from the bronze of health these pale wasters are unable to rub on sufficient protection, they turn up vitamin deficient, their cultural anaemia looks terminal. And this is the shroud that Australian enfant terrible Benedict Andrews lays over Chekhov’s shivering, mysterious play; grandiose and brilliant gestures of staging reinvigorate the play just as the production vampirically drains Chekhov of texture, colour, and social insight.
The endless overlit and static quality that makes up Andrews’ flip-reversed take on the Chekhovian gloom and twilight does not suffer for lack of boldness. To trap these characters not in stuffy drawing rooms but in the vastness of space and light; to wrap this into an interminable glacial sense of time where truly nothing can happen; to convey their existential constriction through the excess of its opposite (choice without any contours becoming paralysis; freedom as so total it becomes some kind of murky abstraction of itself) is truly sensational even as its vastness begins to render us insensate.
Anderson brings in some cool set-pieces: a tiny spinning top teeters at the stage’s edge, filling the silence with its small whirr, halting the production in its tracks as the characters stare transfixed. A remote controlled helicopter rises into the sky like a placated bee; enigmatically calm, finally breaking the stranglehold of space. Operated by an aristocratic soldier perhaps this is a comment on a technologized war, making sense of the soldiers’ presence there (for Chekhov they were bringers of culture to the provinces; hardly imaginable now) and by extension the characters’ distance from the pressing galvanising sense of death. More concretely it seems to echo their innocent hopes for lift-off, introducing a small note of irony and feeling for their hopes and frustrations.
And yet this kind of subtlety is in short supply. For all its brilliance, too often this staging feels refreshing in the way taking a long shower in antiseptic mouthwash would be – a few steps beyond the radical cleansing move; blandishing in its intensity; and for long periods becoming nothing short of punishingly anhedonic. If Chekhov intoxicates his characters with their own futility, bringing them spacey and giddy to the dying party, here the question becomes: what happens when you swallow too much mouthwash, and, maybe there was room to swap the traditional watery stuff for something a little more sophisticated?
Much of the fault lies with Andrews’ own adaptation (while in interview an actor may have described this as a Marmite production, at least where the script is concerned it’s much more like margarine) which forgoes much of the flavour, chases long notes of linguistic blandness, plumping for lite and cloying over a more subtle slippery palate. Cate Blanchett wrote that Andrews ‘wrestles any text to the ground’ and here he seems too complete in his victory; repeatedly suplexing the big Russian while ensuring his own doesn’t put up much of a fight as it wriggles on the mat. As a consequence this three-hour mismatch feels rigged from the get-go.
Inconsequence is scored, underscored, then scored back through again; with the cumulative effect of projecting its depression back onto its audience. In an adaptation that hovers between Chekhov’s time and ours, both eras are made close to incomprehensible. Iphones are toted, “bio-dynamic” and “bio-interface” appear as the irksome words of technological frivolity and empty futurism, and the key notes of Chekhov’s optimism become blanched.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Vershinin, played by William Houston as a flintily dashing twentieth century movie star, growling and romantic; and yet his talk of the future is so ludicrously empty, his mouthing of posterity so abject in its lack of philosophy he becomes little more than a huckster and a cad. The other hope Tuzenbach is left bafflingly in an unrecognisable past, talking of work in terms so at odd with any translation it feels like Chekhov’s logic may be running out a century on. From them we receive largely contentless monologues which empty social change into mere gesture.
It’s not that this hope must be real. Soviet critics once proclaimed the revolutionary zeal and optimism of this play, overloading it with burdensome ideology. But Andrew’s insistence on making these speeches absurd proves similarly fatal. As an acute observer of the culture about which he was writing Chekhov was as interested in this political optimism as form, but also as content; that is to say the emanations of these speeches’ effects on his characters as they exist culture-bound within the space of the play, as well as its relation to the broader discursive reality, our investment in which allows us to perceive them.
More than that, he realised that both were dependent on one another, and when Andrews refuses to find any consonance with reality, writing abject tosh for his Russian officers to speak, he neuters what in being believable might become poignant: what might give Tuzenbach some purpose, Irina’s hopes and work some shot at meaning, and finally put some tension and stake into the stasis – to make this culture unbearable through feeling as well as affect.
As it is the pre-judgement which this production hands down to these characters by denying them any plausible hope is crushing. There is perhaps detectable a current of ugly cynicism running through Andrews adaptation – writing off the future as posture, obsessed with the present that none of the characters can successfully occupy, history as postmodern wreckage, big shallow gestures eclipsing the narrower tensions.
This bleakness finds its spoken echo in the rhythms of the speech, the cast coached to talk in pale light, to drain the emotion through a drip-feed. An adaptation set somewhere between Chekhov’s time and now it hovers listlessly, pursuing a slightly off-note of naturalism, that unlike say Simon Stephens’ period drama strangeness with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House here, does little to destabilise naturalism, preferring to cast it floating in its own worst excesses of middle-brow mediocrity. A migraine naturalism, where leaden words fly out into unblinking light, making you just want to take far too many pills and either leap about to feel something and break this cursed spell, or lie down forever in a darkened room.
This anti-rainbow of stilted sing-song breaks into depthless song lyrics that build on Masha and Vershinin’s strange militarised “Tram-tam-tam” sweet nothings. The lacerating riot-grunge of Pussy Riot makes an appearance at admirable volume, but other than being perhaps a sly nod at their appropriation as a cause, feels bolted-on. A version of Smells Like Teen Spirit is belted out by the throng, with a ridiculous plinking piano in lieu of the detuning guitar, drumming on seats and shouting – this may be an exciting development in the context of the history of the play, but it remains that Nirvana as a symbol of decline of a vigorous culture is a decades-old cliche.
Mariah Gale’s Olga is pleasant and clean, a nice girl with contralto notes of sardony whose gulps of pain at the denouement are powerful for being so isolated, while Gala Gordon as Irina stifles her notes of desperation and passion with a continuing perfectness. Similarly Vanessa Kirby’s Masha is devilish in the way someone might describe a sweet cake, never upsetting the dinner plans too much, a lightly-worn rebelhood. We never believe for a second what these people are playing at, and neither are we supposed to.
When Tolstoy compared Chehov’s playwriting to a lyric poem, he was describing the novel way in which the plays were not concerned with solving a dramatic problem but about modulating a continuous mood. In taking this to literal extremes, Three Sisters creates nonsense verse written four hundred feet in the air, in gasping cold cloud formations. This thrombosis of venality is challenging; the decline is sickening. It is bound to be lauded and yet the longer it went on the less this critic could feel; the more he could feel the gout crystallising in his extremities.