Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Stratford Festival

Three Sisters

Irina (Dalal Badr), Olga (Irene Poole), and Masha (Lucy Peacock)

We’ve seen Kelli Fox in The Three Sisters twice now. In 2003 she was the oldest sister, Olga, in a production at the Shaw Festival directed by Jackie Maxwell; in the current show at the Stratford Festival she plays Natasha, Olga’s sister-in-law and nemesis. Kelli Fox is one of the two best reasons to see the Stratford show; the other is Lucy Peacock, who gives (pardon the cliche) a simmering performance as the second sister, Masha. Both stand out in an excellent production of what is, of course, one of the world’s great plays.

The half dozen or so Chekhov plays we have seen have fallen into two distinct camps. Some directors assume that each character must be played as if in the throes of terminal depression. When, as often happens in Chekhov plays, the Russians don’t seem to be listening to each other’s remarks, these directors call for long, awkward silences. Where an actor has a longer speech, she is instructed to step forward and intone it as if in a trance. As P. G. Wodehouse observed (through Bertie Wooster) in Jeeves in the Offing, this brand of Chekhov can be trying:

I knew Chekhov’s Seagull. My Aunt Agatha had once made me take her son Thos to a performance or it at the Old Vic, and what with the strain of trying to follow the cockeyed goings-on of characters called Zarietchnaya and Medvienko and having to be constantly on the alert to prevent Thos making a sneak for the great open spaces, my suffering had been intense.

Three Sisters

Irene Poole as Olga

That notion of Chekhov works no better for Emsworth than it did for Bertie Wooster. Fortunately, the current production of The Three Sisters at Stratford, like the one directed by Jackie Maxwell in 2003, falls into the second camp, with directors who understand that Chekhov’s characters brim with vitality and exhibit a wide range of intensely human emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.  This show is not a theatrical tone poem in a minor key; it’s about people like us that we can care about.

Three Sisters

Masha (Lucy Peacock) is, sadly, married to a good man whom she neither respects nor loves

The Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family: three well-educated sisters and a brother who grew up in Moscow but find themselves stranded in a small Russian village, a military outpost, a year after the death of their father. The three women — Olga (Irene Poole), Masha (Lucy Peacock), and Irina (Dalal Badr), all in their twenties — want nothing more than to leave this cultural wasteland, return to Moscow, and rejoin a social circle with people who know about literature and music. They have pinned their hopes on their brother Andrei, a violinist and a scholar with aspirations of teaching in Moscow at the university.

Unfortunately, the passionate Masha is already married to a man she does not love (Peter Hutt). As she explains to Vershinin, the only officer in their acquaintance with any cultural advantages,

I was married when I was eighteen, and I was afraid of my husband because he was a teacher, and I had only just left school. In those days I thought him an awfully learned, clever, and important person. And now it is not the same, unfortunately . . . .

Three Sisters

Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) foolishly marries a woman who comes to disgust him

And the sisters’ hopes of returning to Moscow with their brother Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) receive a blow when he develops an unfortunate attachment to Natasha (Kelli Fox), an ill-bred woman of the village. By the second act (nine months after the first), Andrei has become a husband and father, has begun a career as a petty bureaucrat, and is gambling away the small family fortune. By the final act (three years later), he knows that marrying Natasha was a colossal blunder. As he confesses to Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick), who boards with the Prozorovs,

There is something in her that makes her no better than some petty, snake-like creature. She is not a human being. She seems to me so vulgar that I can’t account for my loving her or, anyway, having loved her.

Natasha is like the camel in the proverb who pokes his nose into a tent and ends up displacing everyone else.  (Kelli Fox gives us this dreadful termagant to the hilt.)  She bullies and shocks her sisters-in-law with her vulgarity, selfishness, and petty cruelty; in the end she drives them away from their home. Olga’s only consolation, as she reconciles herself to a provincial life as a old maid schoolmistress, is that she is able to rescue the family’s 80-year-old nanny and servant, Anfisa (Joyce Campion), to whom Natasha has been shockingly brutal. Masha and Irina have no choice but to settle for marriages to men they do not love.

The naked plot of The Three Sisters, which is much richer than three paragraphs can convey, would suggest that the play is nothing but a gloomy, metaphorical portrayal by Chekhov of all the self-inflicted wounds that were keeping Russia from advancing to modernity.  But these characters joke and tease, sing and dance, flirt and misbehave, scheme and dream.  The joy of life spills forth in every scene. 

Emsworth has three daughters of his own, presently almost exactly the same age as Chekhov’s three sisters, and was delighted to see that Chekhov was aware of how birth order influences the temperaments and personalities of siblings.  (Did we notice this when we saw the play six years ago?  We don’t remember.)  We had little difficulty in matching the salient traits of our three daughters with those of Olga, Masha, and Irina.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One hopes that you are reading the new translation by Susan Coyne, which is what director Martha Henry used at the Stratford Festival.

  2. Still not a fan. Of the name, that is. I have a copy of the play and am looking forward to reading it.

  3. I think that in Russian her name is more like “Ol-ya”.

  4. Olga rules. Not her name, though. That kind of sucks.


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