Three Sisters

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In June this summer, in situ: brings to Cambridge Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Director Richard Spaul speaks about his motivations in presenting it – and about the very particular performance approach he has used.

Why did you choose Three Sisters?

This is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century – indeed of any century. In it, Chekhov describes a group of people, all in reasonable material comfort, who are anxious, depressed, dazed – confused by ideas of the direction of life, the purpose of it, the point of it.

These were tormenting – what we would now call existential – questions for writers, thinkers, and for ordinary people in the 20th century, but were not really addressed before Chekhov did so. At the time, the play was a quiet bombshell. If anything, it resonates more with the passing of another 100 years.

Are the Three Sisters of the title the central and most compelling characters?

No they aren’t. Another revolutionary thing about Chekhov – for which I don’t think there are any parallels in earlier work – is the equality that exists among the characters. Previous plays, from Sophocles through to Ibsen, are about one or two central people, often leaving other characters as foil or functions.

Chekhov changes that. In Three Sisters, all the characters are equally in possession of their own interesting needs, hangups, desires, and fears. And through that, he introduces a whole new level of realism – for real life doesn’t have central characters, just equal people.

The play’s original language is Russian, and British audiences usually see the play in translation. You’re taking the approach of not using a translation but asking cast members to speak in their own words. Why?

I’ve tried this approach a few times before – always for plays of the modern period whose original language isn’t English. It’s not an approach that is suitable for all material – for instance, I wouldn’t ask actors to perform Shakespeare in their own words because text in Shakespeare is all there is. But any version of Three Sisters in English is an approximation to an unavailable original, so gives permission to an ‘own words’ approach.

Also, Chekhov – unlike many other playwrights – is attempting to capture the speech and other utterances of very ordinary life. So it seemed appropriate for the actors to use speech spontaneously, with all the interruptions, half-finished sentences and tailings off – which real speech consists of but which is almost impossible to capture in written language.

Has it been challenging for the actors to develop their performances to be ‘real’ yet true to the original?

It’s been very challenging. With such improvisation, the temptation is to plan your speech moments before you do it – but that ends up more stilted and dreadful than a badly-delivered script or a rubbish reality TV show.

Having the actors speak Chekhov’s ideas in their own words is not a magic bullet and demands a lot of deep understanding on the part of the performers. It’s one of the things that has taken most time, effort and patience during rehearsal.

When this approach is effective, though, I do feel it can reach a deeper realism than is usual with text-based work. I’d be interested to hear whether the audience agrees with that or not!

What inspirations from other dramatic traditions have you called upon?

Stanislavsky started the ball rolling on naturalistic acting technique, entirely as a result of his encounter with Chekhov’s work. So he is certainly present in our interpretation.

Another inspiration has been the strong counter-stream in early Soviet theatre which they called Formalism, though we might call it Expressionistic. Crowded stages full of people in uncomfortably close proximity; the use of placards and banners; sudden explosions of volcanic performance energy followed by great lulls and langeurs. This kind of theatre was later developed very strikingly by the Polish artist and director Tadeusz Kantor in what he sometimes called ‘Zero Theatre’ or ‘Theatre of Death’.

Plus, we’ve used personal material – people’s recollections of Russia from media images – newsreel, photos, postage stamps and so on.

What might audiences take away from the performance?

I hope different audience members will take away different things. I hope they will share our feeling that there is something very powerful about a play written 100 years or so ago, in which the characters speculate endlessly about the future – Russia’s future but also Humanity’s future – and do so with varying hope, bewilderment, conviction, despair.

We know what happened to Russia and the rest of the world in the following 100 years and much of it was so horrific and destructive as to hardly bear thinking about. We know what their future turned out to be. But we don’t know what our future is. So we’re as helpless as them, really. And many of us are just as worried.

Consideration of that has been our main focus as we developed the performance. But Three Sisters is a towering masterpiece aside from its modern relevance. There are many things to see and appreciate in it quite apart from what we think is most important to us.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov is performed from Thursday 22nd to Saturday 24th June 2017 at 20.00 hours at the Leper Chapel, Newmarket Road, Cambridge CB4 1DH. Tickets £12 (£10 concessions) available in advance and from 7.30pm at the venue. You are advised to wrap up warmly as this venue has no heating.

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