I don’t really like the term ‘good ensemble acting’. What people tend to mean when they use it is that there are a lot of people on stage, doing, thinking and feeling different things, and that everything is fine.
So I prefer ‘good acting’. It’s no more or less important whether there are two actors or twenty two.
But to be good with a lot of people is tougher than being good with a few. First the director has to move the scene in the space available; it isn’t simply hours of work, but hours of committed and inspired work to get it spontaneous. To look as though the actors just showed up and did it. When the number of people on stage is substantial the director is the person who has shaped it, alone. In a two hander actors can often create their own authentic moves.
The ‘ensemble’ acting in the adapted Three Sisters at The Union is the best or equal to the best I have seen. Once the director had created the physical shape of the scene it was then necessary for the cast to find freedom but within the parameters set. Thus there was first discipline, then committed and detailed work and finally, and only as a result of those things coming first, freedom, naturalism, ease. The audience sat back and relaxed.
It should always be like this, but it isn’t. The next time you pay £80 for a ticket make a point of watching the actors who aren’t talking. You will notice those who believe that if they don’t have a line they have to compensate by overacting, by pulling faces. At the other extreme some feel that it’s appropriate to take a rest, to stop acting. They then stare fixedly at the person talking with a kind of generalised intensity which they hope will be mistaken for authenticity.
Even good actors can fall into these traps so the (virtual) total absence of any such thing at The Union is again down to the director.
The interpretation and text
This is a samovar.
It is a Russian teapot.
No doubt there were basic samovars, better samovars and then really posh ones. All, however, were somewhat ceremonial. Tea was a big deal.
Act 1 of Chekhov’s play is Irina’s name day. Chebutykhin, the old military doctor and Irina’s natural father, deliberately has an expensive samovar delivered at a time when all the guests are present. Irina and her sisters protest loudly but happily to the effect of ‘oh, you shouldn’t have’, precisely the reaction he wanted. Denied conventional methods of expressing paternity the doctor utilises every other he can find.
In this production the doctor does exit mysteriously but then returns with a small, average looking jewellery box. Irina looks inside, says thank you, no-one else is interested, lines are cut and the play, if it can still be called that, proceeds.
This is dramatic illiteracy. The box was small enough to fit into his pocket – why did he need to leave the room to get it?
Did the company decide that this old bloke sits around the house all day for years for no reason? It is fraudulent to bill a production Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov if one refuses to tell the story.
Chekhov wrote a play about four dysfunctional children of dead parents. All are highly intelligent and agoraphobic. Irina is a spiteful anorexic, Masha the kind of person who is ecstatically happy providing everyone else is miserable and vice versa. Olga, the eldest daughter, told endlessly as a child to ‘look after’ the children and who, suitably burdened, is still trying and still failing, gets a headache whenever she leaves the house. Andrey, the son, is so threatened by ordinary life that he finds it impossible to speak coherently if another human is present.
Whether adapted or modernised, if one is doing Three Sisters this is the tale one has to tell. There remains endless room for interpretation.
Act 1 was completed in 25 minutes. Anyone who knows the text will understand that this is an absurdity. It was as though it had been said: Act 1 is boring exposition, let’s get it over with…
Ivy Corbin as Masha was one of those who retained a degree of calm. Amidst the headlong rush she took an extra half second when she needed to. As an example of authentic stage presence what she did couldn’t be bettered. The great failure was that she played Candida, not Masha. This Masha was mature and well adjusted where Chekhov’s is spoiled and childish. She was slightly self-absorbed at the start, as distinct from attention seekingly annoying. The decision to leave was made for no reason. She said the words and put her hat on. When Vershinin arrived she was a little bit interested. At the start of Act 2 when two years had passed nothing had changed. She was still slightly interested in Vershinin with whom, inexplicably, she had been for a walk. Poor Tusenbach had to ask her why she was laughing so much when she appeared nothing but slightly puzzled. Masha complains about Andrey losing money at cards yet the character as represented would simply have confronted her brother, not wasted energy moaning to her sisters. The problem of the temper tantrum in Act 2 was solved by not having one. For an actress this good the lines must have stuck in her throat. And why would such a self-possessed grown-up have been so foolish as to marry Kulygin and be too scared to stand up to her brother? Her failure to even begin to embrace the vulnerability of her character was shared by the company (except Corinna Marlowe, who, as Anfisa, gave the only emotionally generous performance).
It is possible to take the themes of a great work, which are universal, and put them into a different context. The six characters currently in the Russian army could be, instead, members of the local drama group or hair-dressing society; they could be drug dealers. One would need new language and a new backdrop but this could be done and has been done. This Three Sisters, however, represents itself as happening in rural Russia in 1900. No-one has thought it necessary to discover how soldiers might behave. With the slight exception of Ashley Russell as Vershinin they slope around like weedy teenagers outside a chip shop. A description of life in the Russian army is a Google away, as is how guests behaved and were treated (and still are). No-one bothered.
The cover and inside page:
Isn’t a name missing?
Tracy Letts, guilty of this adaptation, is quoted thus: “…I don’t much like Chekhov. They start talking about name days… and everybody has a big beard… what’s a name day?”.
Christian Fellner writes: “In Russia most people are named after saints and their ‘name day’ or ‘angel’s’ day’ (as it is often called) falls on their particular Saint’s Festival day according to the Orthodox Church calendar. St Irina’s day falls on May 14. A person’s name day is celebrated in a similar way to their birthday - you might give flowers to a woman or eat a special meal and if you’re religious you would almost certainly go to church and light a candle in front of the icon depicting your saint. In Chekhov's time your name day was considered to be more important than your birthday…”
There’s your answer, Tracy. Since you don’t like Chekhov, please stay away from him. The Taliban blew up things they didn’t understand and which threatened them. You remind me of them.
In Peter Carson’s translation Soliony exits abruptly at the end of Act 2 with the words ‘I don’t care’ directed at Natasha. Letts has him say ‘fuck off’. A guest who behaved in that way would have been excluded from the house forever and never spoken to again; his army colleagues would have given him a savage beating or worse. Letts doesn’t understand or care. The reason Chekhov sets Act 1 of his play on a day of celebration is to give himself an excuse to gather all his characters in the same place. It also means that everyone is a little more excited than normal and more likely to blurt things out (everyone looks forward to a party). It is the same principle in Act 3, where the backdrop is the fire. The rush of adrenaline provoked in different ways in all characters allows Chekhov to get them to do what he wants; get drunk, have a breakdown, tell the truth.
The director then weighs in to excuse the absence of Ferapont, who has been cut from the text. He calls Ferapont ‘a tiny role’. Ferapont is the most passive, testosterone free character ever created by Chekhov. Elderly and a messenger he enjoys selective deafness and speaks rarely, only when pressed, and usually apropos of nothing. The reason Ferapont exists is so that Andrey, in the company of the only person on earth he perceives as unthreatening, may be shown to be lucid, thoughtful and thus a wasted talent. If it wasn’t for Ferapont, we wouldn’t know. Andrey talks when he is there. With anyone else he babbles or clams up. Chekhov, a writer for whom things don’t happen by accident, gives Ferapont 31 lines and has him on stage for 9% of the play. The director thinks it’s a ‘tiny’ part.
He has already held forth: ‘When many of us feel politically adrift, removed and impotent in the face of dismaying election results, Chekhov’s play feels unusually immediate to me…’ He goes on to complain that Europe is lurching alarmingly to the right.
I share his concern on the last bit. Perhaps he should consider that complacent, content-free words like his are an example of why this is happening. Real people – who are Chekhov’s people - are fed up.