6th January 2017
A three-production season of Phil Willmott Company presentations opens in Southwark with Tracy Letts’ version of Chekhov’s provincial family drama. In co-production with the Union, for this presentation, Willmott has gathered together a handsome cast of 14 mainly young professionals, admonished with a few seasoned actors, and offers us a new way of using the Union’s recently acquired space.
With 60 seats spaced generously on all four sides of the space, sight-lines and audibility have never been better. Willmott also occasionally extends the action off-stage into the backstage ‘annexe’, and upstairs into the rehearsal room above the auditorium, with the bracing effect that we the audience feel like the walls, or furniture, of Irina, Masha and Olga’s roomy home, the legacy of their deceased career soldier father. The set is sparsely dressed, with the Union’s handy baby grand providing not only diegetic music (especially for the birthday celebrations of the first act) but also a powerful suggestion of the bourgeois respectability that simultaneously elevates and suffocates their lives, as well as of untold and unexplored potential. Costuming is by Penn O’Cara and ranges fairly freely between late 19th century traditions and several subsequent eras, both Russian and western. This striving after a timeless universality is one of the intentions of the production, and it is one of its bolder challenges. Yes, we know that Chekov exerts astonishingly broad appeal, but how can we express that on stage?
Letts offers us a highly compressed language that strongly indicates its point of origin in the US. For actors trained in The Method (and one way or another most American actors are), this offers delicious opportunities for bringing Chekov’s characters into their contemporary scene, at least linguistically. Arguably, however, for British-trained actors (and most here are only just or very recently out of that experience), role preparation and vocalisation is shaped rather differently, particularly in how to create and use sub-text, and here – possibly – that leads to an interesting juxtaposition of different dramatic schools which may take a little while to find its common ground. Letts does not often make transitions in mood a straightforward affair, and this can make unpuzzling his lines quite a task for actors.
Added to this, there is also the practical consideration of a relatively large fringe show which presumably does not enjoy the kind of rehearsal period and support that you might find at, say, the National. I strongly suspect that in the hands of a fine director like Willmott, and with the benefit of, say, a week’s run of performances, this could turn into one of the most fascinating Three Sisters we’ve seen in a while. Here, press nights were scheduled right at the beginning of a month’s residence at the Union. In Chekov’s theatre, where so much of the effect depends upon the fine inter-relationships between a tightly drawn together group of contrary personalities, the sort of interplay he wants may take a few more runs properly to find its feet.
As things are, there is much excellent work here to enjoy: the three Prozorova sisters, Olga (alert, intelligent Celine Abrahams), Masha (morosely brooding Ivy Corbin) – with her older husband Kulygin (the officious Steven Rodgers) – and Irina (romantic Molly Crookes) are well contrasted, with their brother Andrey (affable but frustrated Benjamin Chandler) fitting the bill exactly, as does his ghastly wife Natasha (a part with which Francesca Burgoyne has huge fun). The household is completed by the ageing maid Anfisa (Corinna Marlowe). The energising presence of soldiery is brought into their world by a good looking bunch of officers, Rode (athletic Will Henry), Fedotik (pensive Jonathan James), Tunsebach (sensitive Tom Malmed), and the more senior Vershinin (glamorous Ashley Russell) and the grand-old-man with a past, Chebutykin (J P Turner), but especially the explosive violence and danger instilled by Solony (the intense Hugo Nicholson, who is someone to watch carefully in the future: of all those in this good cast, he is the one who seems to be most at home with the script and who is making the most powerful connection with the audience).
The show is beautifully lit by Sean Gleason, using a majestic array of the Union’s manifold. The arguably over-atmospheric sound is by Sebastian Atterbury; this is a small space and the strength of the play and cast and direction are sufficient to convey eloquent meaning without perhaps quite as much reliance on moody underscoring. All in all, this is a good piece of work with the potential to ripen into something even better. We look forward with keen expectation to the next works in the season, ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ in February and ‘Incident at Vichy’ in April, both to be seen at the Finborough Theatre.
Until 4 February 2017. Photos: Scott Rylander