“Have you ever read anything by Chekhov?”
It was the damning denouement given by the kind of theatregoers you’d expect to be in the audience watching a play by Chekhov at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. We’d just finished watching a tour de force from RashDash, who had co-produced along with the Royal Exchange a new version of Chekhov’s celebrated play, Three Sisters, and quite frankly it was one of the most memorable evening’s theatre that I’ve had the pleasure to watch in recent memory.
If you had read the blurb prior to attending you would have got an inkling that RashDash’s interpretation of this classic was not going to be a conventional one. They comprise of founding members Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen, and along with recent addition Becky Wilkie they want to push the boundaries in terms of their art. They have gone on record to discuss how they want to work with text, music and dance and combine them to present something that challenges theatre makers and theatregoers alike.
Everything that they stand for can be seen in this stunning visual and auditory experience.
The set can often betray the production’s vibe before the players have set foot on their stage. In this instance we are met with a decadence exuberance that is a mismatch of styles, the kind of boudoir that you’d expect if you crossed avante garde fashion designer Vivienne Westwood with hip music producer Calvin Harris. A luscious velvety chaise lounge adorns part of the set, along with a fallen chandelier, a bathtub, a set of drums in one corner, a stand up piano in the other, whilst there’s a Korg drum machine in plain view.
A bust of Chekhov oversees this collision of car crashes of styles. Add the pre show music that comprises of a heavy thumping baseline and guitar riffing melodies and it’s suffice to say that you are left with no doubt that RashDash’s version of Three sisters is going to be anything but unconventional.
Three Sisters focuses primarily on siblings Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorov and their aspirational yearnings. As often is the case with the Russian classics, the supporting cast is used to highlight the protagonists hopes and fears. This is typical Chekhov, the setting is in Tsarist Russia, the military and aristocracy being used to contrast the changing themes of his day, with the spotlight falling on the turmoil of the privileged class. This Chekhov classic often gets the classic treatment, with what can be considered to be stereotypical sets, costume designs that pay homage to a bygone forgotten era, and a literal translation of the Russian text.
RashDash strip this classic completely bare. Shorn of its supporting cast the limelight falls squarely on the three female leads, played by Greenland, Goalen and Wilkie. They are adeptly supported by Chloe Rianna on drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on violin and synth.
Through them the themes and machinations of Chekhov are expertly played out. The script is full of charm and wonderfully engaging. Indeed, the dialogue is short, snappy and incredibly amusing, punctuating Chekhov’s heavy text with moments of laughter. There’s talk of supermarkets, facebook party invites, mobile phones and canny uses of props etc. forces the relevancy from the 1900s to a modern setting allows the audience to immerse themselves in this world.
This is more than just a play or a piece of musical theatre. The element of dance and physical theatre is as chaotic as you’d expect from this kind of production. This also goes for the musical features, which are wonderfully in keeping with the spirit that RashDash are wanting to inspire. It’s a gulag of genres encompassing many of the instruments on show. Heavy guitar rifftastic numbers interspersed with some melodic moments that infuse a little subtlety into proceedings demonstrating Wilkie’s consumate pianoship and Yoon-ji Kim’s virtuosity on violins.
It’s therefore entirely understandable why those theatregoers who are so accustomed to the conventionality of Chekhov would and could find this debilitating and which prompted the question that was asked from me at the outset of this review. It is that same question that RashDash hope to instigate amongst ourselves. Asking who and what are the classics for? And if they are not me, why are they staged so often and if they are not for me that how do I make them about me?
For those that seek the answer to these questions can do no worse than that to start here, with RashDash and their wonderfully salacious invoking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Verdict: A stunning reinvention of Chekhov and his classic play Three Sisters. Visually appealing and delightfully musical. It is utterly captivating from the get go, a tour de force that just doesn’t let up until the final throes. Best thing I’ve seen all year!