Seminal sisterly sorrow

Three Sisters

QUT, The Loft

March 10 – 14

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a seminal text, which probably explains the number of school groups in attendance at the recent production featuring QUT BFA (Acting) Third Year Students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical) Production students. The presence of so many secondary students within the audience also serves to illustrate the challenge that presentation of the classic text poses, given its 2.5 hour+ length. With this particular share of such a fresh new version, however, its experience was engaging from start to finish.

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Interest is immediately established in the show’s staging, which sees audience members seated around a stage of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together, affording the feel of immersive theatre without need for audience involvement. Everything is fragmented with incomplete door frames (courtesy of Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design) et al. The scattering of books, opulent flowers and chandeliers hint to the esteem of the family. Amongst the subdued palette, however, are design element hints as to character’s Act One relationships; while the sisters drink Moët while tottering about in heels and jewels, their servant Anfisa’s (Sidney Shorten) outfit is completed by sandshoes and their brother Andrei (Ben Jackson) stands out in striking red jacket as the head of the Prozorov household, despite his life as put-upon partner to the awkward Natasha (Jeanda St James).

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The hopeful but bored titular sisters, matriarchal Olga (Lucy Heathcote), quick-tempered Masha (Isobel Grummels) and idealistic Irina (Imogen Trevillion) are trapped by circumstances in the small town of an unidentified Russian province where their late father was stationed far from Moscow in 1901. Olga fears losing herself as a teacher in the local high school, Masha is trapped in an unhappy marriage to fussy teacher Kulygin (Egan Sun-Bin) and the optimistic Irina yearns for opulence. For now, though, it is a time of celebration in honour of easily-enchanted middle sister Irina’s ‘name day’ (also the first anniversary of their father’s death), which means visit from soldiers, led by the gallant Vershinin (Tate Hinchy), bringing with them a sense of noble idealism. With army officers visiting often, the sisters have company, however, it soon becomes apparent that this is insufficient. What follows from there is a study over time of unrequited hope amongst Russian’s pre-revolutionary privileged class as each character tries desperately to eke some happiness out of their drab day-to-day existences and unrequited longing to return to Moscow.

In the QUT students’ hands “Three Sisters” is very much a play of two distinct halves. While audience members leave the theatre, interval transforms Act Two’s staging to a stark contrast to its former self, bare but for a few pieces of furniture and scattering of withered leaves in metaphoric emphasis of its change of season. Now, years later, Andrei and Natasha are married. His red jacket is gone but Natasha is garishly bejewelled and gleefully despotic as she enters Olga and Irina’s shared room (in sign that she has taken over the household). Sound (Jack Alcock) and lighting design (Jason Glenwright) convey a panicked aesthetic that is dominated by a fire in the town. In terms of the narrative, however, things are a slow burn. While its character studies are engrossing and of their own merit, however, moments of humour are welcomed as attempts at love are frustrated at every turn.

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Successfully translating the narrative of “Three Sisters” to the stage needs to bring the drama of its human motivations to the surface. This is achieved through both Daniel Evans’ tight direction and the impressive work of all ensemble members. Heathcoate anchors things with a solid performance as the brave-faced and dutiful Olga, while Trevillion brings a radiant energy Irina’s deflation from optimism to disillusionment.

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Jackson, meanwhile, is well cast as Andrei. While he is not often on stage, the subtlety of his performance as he gambles away the family’s future security is still noteworthy. And, St James shows incredibility versatility in her presentation of Natasha, credibly taking her from timid, dishevelled speaker of the most sense in Act One call-out of the others’ frivolous lifestyles to tables-turned wielder of obnoxious power. Also of note, as the drunken Doctor Chebutykina, Rachel Nutchey brings a consistent energy, and much comic relief through her well-timed word play and innuendo, cresendoing to an alcohol-fuelled existential crisis.

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“You talk and talk the whole day long,” Masha complains to her brother Andrei late in the play. This is, indeed, a play full of people willing to talk, but who are rarely willing to listen. While it may be a long journey, in the hands of these creatives, it is more than just a study of boredom. While the motif of Chekhov’s gun appears in Act Two after an earlier firearm mention, for example, so too does a soundtrack of songs like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ as an appropriate take into interval. While the stage is sometimes frenzied with three sections being used simultaneously and a dozen characters appearing at once, this is tempered by some lovely stylised moments of slow-motion movement and alike.

Whilst on one hand, “Three Sisters” is an ominous study of sisterly sorrow and the consequences of captivity, it is also an examination of the affecting distance between dreams and reality. This production celebrates the play’s status as a cerebral work of conversations and contemplations, but does so in such a dynamic way as to make the work as accessible as ever.

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