Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece has been reworked before, and with rewarding results. In 2008, a version by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman set the play in post-war Jewish Liverpool. Instead of yearning to see Moscow, the siblings were in a New York state of mind. And instead of Olga, Masha and Irina, we had Gertie, May and Rita.
But here, Australian writer-director Benedict Andrews updates the play even further, to the 21st century. And although the production never adequately deals with the “why” — why in this day and age three well-educated women would be unable to strike out from their stultifying provincial town and see the Moscow of their dreams — this production still dares to shatter the reverential conventions that usually come with Chekhov.
Johannes Schütz’s sparse design places all the action on a grey platform, above which hangs a grey block that serves as a pall of wintry, Russian sky. Chekhov’s dialogue is littered with four-letter swearing and the show paints the sisters — especially the self-mourning Masha — as the kind of girls who would go clubbing if they did not have such contempt for the town in which they live. William Houston’s visiting Colonel Vershinin commands what appears to be a modern Russian army that fights post-Soviet wars in places like Georgia or Chechnya.
For many, none of this will come as a recommendation. Only the other day, a fellow arts journalist alarmingly stabbed his roast chicken lunch while complaining about theatre’s constant reaching out for modern relevance. On that occasion, it was the idea of a King Lear who had sexually abused his daughters that particularly got my companion’s goat. But there is nothing more thrilling in the theatre than having expectations exploded.
Here, that moment arrives in the scene where the Prozorovs and their musical guests play a comforting Russian waltz. Except they launch into a full-bloodied, acoustic version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is a moment that perfectly reflects the rebellious spirit of this production while also capturing the despondent mood of Chekhov’s play. The result is an exhilarating expression of depression.
Yet one of the reasons this production works so well is that it is anchored by the kind of performances that would grace any traditional version. Vanessa Kirby’s Masha displays a dangerous, aristocratic kind of impatience with the world, while Gala Gordon as Irina and Mariah Gale as Olga move from the blushing hope of youth to the kind of stoicism seen in elderly widows.
The outstanding supporting cast includes Michael Feast as the dissolute doctor Chebutykin and a deeply moving Sam Troughton as the doomed Tuzenbach.
As for that unresolved “why”, maybe in a country that jails women protesters such as Pussy Riot for offending conservative tastes, it is not so hard to imagine Russian women held back and subjugated by convention. But Andrews’s production does not particularly convey this notion. If it had, this 21st-century Three Sisters would have been even more special. (www.youngvic.org)