It’s funny how eight-hours of shut eye and a fresh cup of coffee can alter your thinking on a show. Turning in last night after getting back from Simon Stone’s Drei Schwestern – one of Theatertreffen’s ten shortlisted productions and this year’s festival opener – I’d chalked it up as a solid, though occasionally frustrating, evolution of the directors’ glass-box style productions. As I sit down to write up my impressions this morning, I find myself conflicted over its merits and even more troubled by its flaws.
On the one hand, Stone’s production is possibly the most un-German looking thing you could expect to see opening this festival. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. As we’re reminded in the Theatertreffen programme notes, this is a year in which international co-productions have taken a more prominent position in the line-up, and that’s surely to be welcomed. Still, it’s remarkable that the festival kicks off with a production that wouldn’t look out of place at, say, the Almeida or Young Vic.
On the other hand, Stone has taken greater liberty with Chekhov’s text than we might expect from, say, Robert Icke. While the surface sheen of the production promises a reassuringly straightforward, modern-dress Chekhov, Stone isn’t playing it as safe as it first appears. But the result is a rather mixed affair, one that offers its fair share of inspired choices, and a host of highly questionable ones. Essentially, Stone retains the basic recipe of Chekhov’s play, while rejigging the core ingredients. The sisters and their entourage of friends and hangers-on become millennial thirty-somethings; they’re no longer exiles, isolated to country-life, but city-dwellers on temporary vacation. The language has also been modernised. The dialogue abounds with references to Facebook, ‘fake-news’, Brexit, Trump, Grindr and Kanye West. It’s not a translation nor an adaptation either. In fact, it more resembles an indie provocateur’s remake of a piece of classic black-and-white cinema – as if Harmony Korine had got his hands on La Règle du jeu. If that sounds equal parts problematic and intriguing, well, it is.
In overhauling the text, Stone takes the bold step of doing away entirely with Chekhov’s colorful cast of military men. The soldiers are gone and all sense of an occupying force setting up shop in the lives of the sisters has vanished with it. Even more surprising is the ease with which the characters come-and-go throughout the play. There’s no sense that the sisters are marooned in a place they find impossible to leave. Instead, they’re compelled to return, time and time again, with each passing season, to the house their late-father built.
The characters have also been given a facelift. Vershinin becomes Alex (Elias Eilinghoff), a monosyllabic pilot who lives across the lake from the sisters’ holiday home, the bookish Andrei (Nicola Mastroberardino) is a lazy stoner who spends most of the play stumbling about half-naked in a weed-induced funk, and Solynony becomes Viktor (Simon Zagermann), whose obsession with watching videos of Jihadi executions online and shooting his revolver into the air puts the rest of his guests in a bit of a tizz.
If you’re already familiar with Stone’s fondness for plonking actors inside glass boxes, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory with this one. There remains something uncomfortably clinical in Stone’s tendency for confining actors to these transparent containers. The sterile and antiseptic spaces carry with them a whiff of the laboratory, with the actors becoming lab-rats in the director’s detached and inscrutable science experiment. This time around, Stone enlarges the frame for Chekhov’s play by locating it within a sizable glass-house. It’s quite a thing to behold. Whereas The Wild Duck and Yerma’s fish-tank settings presented audiences with one viewpoint into its characters’ worlds, designer Lizzie Clachan’s revolving two-tiered dolls-house allows for an altogether more fluid and subjective experience. As the evening wears on and each room of the house becomes a hive of hedonistic activity, we become voyeurs in the vein of Big Brother – repelled by the spiral of misery, but somehow unable to tear ourselves away from the spectacle of these characters’ suffering.
The use of microphones to amplify each sound heightens this fly-on-the-wall documentary realism; our ears become alert to the uncorking of every wine bottle, the note of every piano key and the breath of every whispered conversation. What’s more, Clachan’s dolls-house setting allows for simultaneous sequences to counterpoint each other: a row unfolds in the kitchen while Andrey and Natasha have a quickie in the upstairs bedroom; Nikolai entertains the guests with the piano while Masha and Alex share a cigarette on the patio; Roman listens to headphones on the toilet while Victor paces the corridors in search of his revolver. Stone presents us with life in miniature and the production is at its best through its attention to quiet disorder in domestic spaces.
But here’s the rub: if you’re going to insist on a radical overhaul of the text’s underlying dramaturgy, you better ensure your own version enhances (or is in some way equal to) its source material. The main issue with Stone’s production isn’t his cavalier approach to the text per se, but his marginalization of the play’s female heroines. It’s the fact that Olga (Barbara Horvath), Masha (Franziska Hackl) and Irina (Lilianne Amuat) are reduced to bit players in their own drama that really rankles. Despite the flashiness and technical brilliance of Stones’ staging, the sisters’ voices are drowned out in the blizzard of male activity. It’s made worse by the treatment of Natasha (Cathrin Stormer) who is reduced to little more then a chipmunk-sounding, misogynistic trope. As another critic put it to me, it’s quite a feat to remove the play’s most macho element – the soldiers – and still end up making the most masculinist version of Chekhov’s play imaginable.
Despite some impressive and often beautiful design choices, Stone’s production falls very much into the swing-and-a-miss category for me. By all means, mess around with Chekhov. Heck, set it on the moon or dress the entire cast in bear costumes, if that’s what you want. But whatever you do, don’t overlook the beating heart of the play and reduce the complexity of its women to little more than window dressing.
For more information on Theatertreffen 2017, click here.