It only hurts when you laugh (Review) ‘Synecdoche 3 Sisters’ at !Metro Arts

29 October, 2010 by 1 Comment

Nicole Bilson (Irina): Matthew Williamson Photography

Bringing a Chekhov play to the stage is not an enterprise for the faint-hearted. Deciding to adapt The Three Sisters (1900-01), one of the undisputed masterpieces of modern realist drama, takes bold vision and the wherewithal to manifest it. I’ve been mulling why this production titled Synecdoche 3 Sisters (‘synecdoche’ meaning ‘shared understanding’) by Side Effect Theatre as part of !Metro Arts 2010 Indie program, didn’t work for me as it might have.

My main problem with this production revolves around the relationship between theatre architecture and stage space, and the play and its production style. I know the grungy intimacy of !Metro Arts Studio can, and does work well for some plays but, for me, it positively worked against the success of what is, at heart, an expansive and elegant play about dashed hopes. In this production, which never strays too far from the original’s realist roots and a naturalistic acting style, there is a feeling of awkwardness at times which, in large measure, is precipitated by the tiny playing space of the small auditorium; this has forced design and staging decisions on the production and it feels cramped and held back, although Director and Adaptor Allie Stapleton – it’s Julius West’s translation – makes some bold directorial choices. She has cut characters from the original text and has double-cast others. There’s direct audience address, scenes are played simultaneously, and the play ends as it begins giving a sense of endlessness, futility or even of a recurring dream.  There is also a live violinist (Sarah-Jane Abbott) who provides a soundtrack to the action – even if the latter seems at odds with stage action and even distracting at times. The design work – set by Kade Sproule, costumes Carolyn Taylor-Smith, and sound design from CardboardBox Audio – all have a decidedly expressionistic feel, as does Jason Glenwright’s shadow play in light. It’s always good to see the dust covers taken off a play.

The cast is comprised of experienced actors and newcomers. Ms Stapleton’s decision to double-cast may have worked against stronger character decisions. Certainly, individual performances within the ensemble are uneven.  The excellent Daniel Murphy plays Chebutikin and Kuligin, Nicole Bilson is double-cast as the youngest sister Irina and the old nurse Anfisa, while Kieran Law plays brother Andrey as well as the awkward Solyony.  The acting company also features an unadorned, honest, and ultimately most satisfying performance by Kerith Atkinson as the elder sister Olga; Luke Cadden appears as Vershinin; Caroline Levien is Masha, the artist of the trio. The cast is completed by Chris Vernon as the sweetly loyal but doomed Tuzenbach and Natalie Trent as sister-in-law Natasha.

One of the puzzles for Anglo Chekhov lovers is his own description of the plays as ‘comedies.’ Most English-speaking productions tend to emphasise the tragedy, at least in my experience. By ‘comedy’ Chekhov meant not ‘humour’ as such, but something descriptive of the silliness, pettiness, wrong-headedness and idiotic posturing  – in other words, the odd behaviour of seemingly rationale beings. Paradoxically it’s the gradual accretion of these individual ‘comic’ moments across the arc of the play that creates the heaviness, the weight of tragedy.

Of course, characters in a Chekhov play don’t think they’re living in a tragedy; life’s far too mundane for that.  Sure, they bitch and moan over great and small things in their lives. We all recognise this. They get headaches, are bored, fall in and out of love, laugh at themselves and others, are abandoned, and some even die. It’s not the hand of some Greek god that smites them for a great wrong; their tragedy is the pall of ordinary, seemingly purposeless existence, of lives lived without hope.  And the tragedy in a Chekhov play should creep up on an audience. You should be shaking your head, laughing – sniggering even – just before the tragedy grabs. It takes a confident hand to allow the genius of Chekhov to work this way in a production – and it won’t work if you play the tragic and ignore the comic. For my taste, performances in this production ignored the comic in large measure, and thus weakened the truly tragic. I thought this the single most problematical aspect of the production.

Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that, if the production’s acting style – the entire production in fact – had pulled up its strongly-grounded realist roots and taken further flight into expressionism’s fractured ‘inside of your head’ territory – where it seemed to me to be going –  the production might have better worked as a ‘shared understanding,’ albeit one found in dreams, and been a better fit in the enclosed ‘in your face’ space of !Metro Arts Studio.

The season of Synecdoche 3 Sisters runs from 26 October to 6 November. Check !Metro Arts website for details.

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