In his reworking of Anton Chekhov’s play Scottish artist and playwright John Byrne has relocated the sisters to deepest darkest Dunoon in the 1960s. Andy Arnold’s production, therefore, is a piece that views early nineteenth century concerns with a contemporary eye, and the similarities are plentiful. The exposed town perched on the River Clyde estuary, battered by squalling winds, is a fitting reinterpretation of Chekhov’s isolated Russian landscape. Moscow has been replaced with the alluring hustle and bustle of London, and the sisters pine for their childhood home like a recovering junkie missing the needle.
The flame haired trio of Olive (Muireann Kelly), Maddy (Sally Reid) and Renee (Jessica Hardwick) and their bumbling older brother Archie (Jonathan Watson) pass the time in their large house on the outskirts of town, where they have been residents for eleven years. The narrative spans five years and charts the how their lives change over this short but influential period.
The relocation to home soil means Byrne can use accents to accentuate the differences between people – something difficult to capture for British audiences when set in Russia. The sister’s crisp English remarks, like a Radio 4 continuity announcer, contrast with the Scottish brogue of Natasha (Archie’s fiancé) and Maloney’s (a sailor) thick Northern Irish drawl. These intonations are predominantly well sustained but Natasha’s disconcertingly swings between Scottish and mock English, as though emulating her in-laws. Further differences are revealed through their demeanour. The sisters hold themselves with a refined, almost Victorian, grace, especially the demure Maddy – whose frustrations at life burn through Reid’s expressions while her actions remain calm and proper. Their elegance jars against the coarse and vulgar Maloney, like Jane to his Tarzan. The increasing dominance of the insufferably “common” Natasha in the household and the sister’s inability to prevent it mirrors the growing influence of the middle and lower classes within society, a dominant theme of Chekhov’s original. In perhaps the clearest signifier of their aversion to their surroundings, Maddy mentions her dislike of nearly everyone in the town. In the aftermath of the Independence Referendum, these derogatory statements carry a weighty subtext.
Arnold brings energy to the production, despite being limited by the solitary setting of the Penhalligan family home and the reserved manner of most of the characters. Some of this energy comes from Sylvester McCoy’s blithering Dr MacGillivery, whose eccentric verbal spoutings inject some much needed humour into the otherwise sombre narrative. Arnold also creates some striking freeze-frames during the asides between characters; as the lights dim on those not speaking, the cast hold their pose like in an old photograph, but though their bodies are still, their eyes are seething with emotions and intentions. This is all framed by Byrne and Charlotte Lane’s set, a sense of former grandeur captured in the chaise longue, drinks trolley and Persian rug, while the angular windows and roof of the Byrne inspired backdrop hint at its fading relevance.
Chekhov’s turn of the century text sits well in the 60s, when the UK was going through a period of economic decline and Dunoon was facing a wane in its tourist trade. However, many elements speak directly to a contemporary audience: Archie’s need to remortgage the house will feel familiar to modern families north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. The referrals to the unknown state of the future – Lieutenant McShane wonders what life will be like when they’re all dead – feels like a reference to the current political climate. Depressing and debilitating measures like the bedroom tax, privatisation of public services, and cuts to the welfare system make the present a very gloomy prospect for many people – and Chekhov’s play ends with a similar melancholic tone.