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)

A kinky twist to taming the Shrew

Suppose you’re an actress playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. You’ve worked hard in the first half of the play to prove that you’re the most disagreeable young woman in Padua. How can you possibly be convincing in the final act, when you must profess and practice wifely submission and obedience?

It’s ever harder, I would think, than the job of an actor playing Othello, who must somehow show a transformation in his feelings toward Desdemona, so that his full-blown murderous rage won’t come as a surprise.

Irene Poole as Katherina and Evan Builung as Petruchio

This year’s Shrew at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), reviewed by Emsworth in this post, Irene Poole, as Katherine, attacks the challenge in a unexpected way. There’s sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio (Evan Buliung) from their first scene together, and it grows as the insults mount and the blows fly. The hungrier she gets, and the shorter on sleep — the more he teases and torments her, you know the play — the more it seems that this Katherine is being drawn into kinky role-playing that will lead to the consummation of her marriage.

And so, in Katherine’s final re-education session, when Petruchio teaches her that the sun is the moon when he says it is, and that it is the sun again when he says so, Katherine agrees with a triumphant gleam in her eye and a mocking laugh:

Petruchio: I say it is the moon.

Katherine: I know it is the moon.

Petruchio: Nay then you lie, it is the blessed sun.

Katherine: Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind.

Katherina and Petruchio

With this scene, we understand that Katherine (as played by Irene Poole) is now fully in on Petruchio’s nasty little game — and she’s gotten to like it.

Thus, when Petruchio lays a wager with Hortensio and Lucentio as to whose wife is the most submissive, Katherine knows how to play her part. She ends her “bound to serve, love and obey” speech by offering to let her husband step on her hands.

Delighted with his new playmate, Petruchio is ready for the game to be consummated: “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.”

Will Petruchio always be dominant in this loving relationship? We doubt it. From an earlier scene, in which Katherine ties up her sister and flogs her, we already have a good inkling that Katherine will like giving as well as receiving.

Lucy Peacock as Grumio

This show’s director, Peter Hinton, prepares the audience for twisted love-play by his decision to cast Petruchio’s servant Grumio as a woman playing a woman (Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock). As one might suppose, this adds sexual overtones to their relationship of master and servant. In their first scene together (Act I, Scene 2), Grumio jests suggestively with her master about his instruction to “knock me here, rap me here, knock me well, and knock me soundly.” Later, when Petruchio finally appears for his marriage to Katherine, he arrives (in this production) in a cart pulled by Grumio with a bit in her mouth!

And in Act IV, Scene 3, Grumio participates enthusiastically in her master’s “taming” of Katherine, showing her a fine piece of beef, then mocking her as she pulls it away. The upshot of this gender-blind casting: we infer that an unconventional relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is already in place before Petruchio comes to Padua to find another woman to add to his menage.

Emsworth reviews this show in this post.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Emsworth is glad he didn’t skip The Taming of the Shrew, as originally planned. This show is a joyride, a high-spirited show with as fine a cast as the Stratford Festival can muster. It kept us laughing and entertained from beginning to end.

Evan Biulung and Irene Poole as Petruchio and Katherina; in the background, Adrienne Gould as Bianca

The dilemma in this comedy is how Baptista Minola (Stephen Ouimette) of Padua is to marry off his two daughters. For his pretty, good-humored younger daughter, Bianca (Adrienne Gould), Baptista has solid options in young Gremio (Juan Chioran) and long-in-the-tooth Hortensio (Randy Hughson).

However, for his elder daughter, Katherine (Irene Poole), an irascible, sharp-tongued girl with a limp (in this production, anyway), he has no takers. On principle, like Laban in Biblical times, Baptista will not marry his second daughter until he has found a husband for the first.

Gremio and Hortensio make common cause and agree to find a husband for Katherine so they can get on with their competition for Bianca. The situation is complicated when Lucentio (Jeff Lillico) arrives from Pisa, happens to spy Bianca, and becomes a third suitor.

Biulung and Poole

But a solution appears, and the show moves into overdrive, when Petruchio arrives in town from Verona, hoping to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” He learns from Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine and her dowry and sets out to make her his wife.

As Petruchio, Evan Buliung is a dynamic, irrepressible spirit who sweeps all before him; Irene Poole, as Katherine, is a worthy foil. The more Katherine gives him tit for tat, the more Petruchio values her and the more he revels in the tasty game of subduing her. Their scenes together are first-rate, from the saucy repartee of their opening skirmish to the hilariously cruel scenes in which Petruchio snatches sleep, food, and clothing away from his wife to reduce her to submission. (In this production, Petruchio and Katherine come to enjoy a decidedly kinky, dare we say, sado-masochistic, relationship. For Emsworth’s take on this, see this post.)

Persons considering this show should be aware that it has a good deal of disquieting and gratuitous cruelty. The people of Padua dunk Katherine in the river for her shrewish behavior. Katherine ties up her sister Bianca and whips her. And not only does Katherine strike Petruchio, but Petruchio strikes her back.

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

At any rate, we were entertained by the extravagant, brilliantly colored period costumes and by the Elizabethan songs interpolated throughout the play and performed by various members of the cast. We admired the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, as Bianca, played here as a man-tease, nearly as much as we liked her as Ophelia in this year’s Hamlet. The comic performances of Stephen Oimette as Baptista and Patrick McManus as the flamboyant Biondello were exquisite.

And we especially enjoyed the performance of Ben Carlson as Lucentio’s servant Tranio, who like Mr. Pickwick’s Sam Weller is wittier, more voluble, and more worldly-wise than his master.

So why did we hesitate to see The Taming of the Shrew? It was not that we were necessarily put off by the unenlightened sixteenth-century treatment of women in the play. Those were different times, and Emsworth has no patience for those who cannot get past the fact that sixteenth-century England was not organized on politically correct principles.

No, we hesitated because we thought The Taming of the Shrew, which we had never seen performed until now, was one of our least favorite Shakespeare plays. Reading it, we thought the prologue scene was superfluous, and we could not see how the “lord and master” speech at the end fit with the rest of the play. And seen on the page, the play’s humor was hard to appreciate.

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

We also worried, frankly, about our ability to keep everyone straight. There are plenty of characters, some with similar names (Grumio and Gremio), and to further confuse his audience, Shakespeare has many of them trade identities. Emsworth is happily accustomed to the imposters that litter the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, but there are so many imposters in The Taming of the Shrew that it is not easy to remember who is pretending to be who.

But we worried for nothing. The direction of Peter Hinton gave this production such shape and momentum that we never felt lost or confused, even at moments when we might not have been able to give an accurate account of the characters.

For Emsworth’s take on the nastiness between Petruchio and Katherine, see this post.)

For Emsworth’s review of All’s Well That Ends Well in the 2008 season of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario), see this post for the Emsworth review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post). Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Berstein’s Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).