Writer: Anton Chekhov
Director: Lev Dodin
Reviewer: Gus Mitchell
With a double bill of Life and Fate and Uncle Vanya at the Theatre Royal Haymarket last summer, the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg made a splash in London. Their renowned director Lev Dodin now leads the company back to the West End, with a 10-day run of Anton Chekhov’s penultimate play, Three Sisters, at the Vaudeville Theatre. It is, of course, a huge privilege to see Chekhov in the original language and delivered by artists steeped in the essence of the Russian tradition. Dodin studied under a pupil of Stanislavsky, and his tactile appreciation for the subtlety and inner dynamism of the texts is profound.
This Three Sisters moves in hypnotic ebbs and then sudden bursts of emotional power. Throughout the length of a scene – the aftermath of the fire in the second half, for example – a slow-burning succession of quiet exchanges gradually reveals the cavernous, ever-looming pit underneath. Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina) glares out silently from the windows; Irina Tychinina’s Olga slumps against the door-frame of the house and slowly, almost imperceptibly, sinks into herself. Characters take up silent vigils at the windows of the house, seemingly transcending the moment of the scene and looking at suffering in its essence. These are the most magical parts of Dodin’s production, where the control and stillness of Chekhov’s writing is mirrored in staging just as imperceptible, with explosions of emotion that shock due to the calm that has surrounded them.
This is not to say that such intensity is the norm, or that the controlled calm of other aspects of the production can be entirely separated from the feeling that the cast may sometimes be going through the motions. It premiered in 2010, and while it is Dodin’s practice to ensure the actors continue to add to their practice and the production evolves along with the course of their lives and the times, it sometimes feels that a little staleness has crept into the performances. An air of danger, life-or-death struggle for meaning, is missing. Some scenes are played so gracefully artlessly that you barely notice them.
Dodin’s direction seems geared to allow the gradual unpeeling of the onion, as it were. The only problem here is that one feels there may be nothing in reserve. The volcanoes of emotion under the surface, which would complete the picture, do not seem to be there. Often it seems like these performers have seen and accepted their bitter fate before the curtain even rises, and so central to the play’s sadness and impact must be that everyone thinks they can or will avoid the inevitable decay of their dreams.
The acting is, predictably (but this should never be underappreciated) marvellous and utterly believable, if lacking sometimes in some of the essential aforementioned thrust. Among the standouts is the pitiful Alxeander Bikovskii as the shuffling, hapless brother Andrey – he manages more than any other performer to embody the panic and sadness of Chekhov’s unravelling failure. Igor Chernevich’s Vershinin could be listened to in his waxing sadness till the cows come home. The simplicity of Alexander Borovsky’s set becomes, by degrees, a revelation, as the façade of the sisters’ house is moved further and further upstage, claustrophobia seeping more deeply into each successive act.
The flaws are fascinating, though in the end perhaps not important, so precious are its strengths. It is an evening whose essential atmosphere, if less particular moments of acting or direction, will most likely stay with you and grow to inform your understanding of what Chekhov, and therefore drama, is.
Runs until 29 June 2019 | Image: Contributed