Making Three Sisters Relevant for Today

I can’t say I’m a Chekhov fan. Yes, I loved Uncle Vanya at HOME last year, which I described as ‘a thing of sparse beauty’. But I struggle to see what many of the plays mean to us today. My copy of Chekhov’s ‘Five Plays’ has sat on the bookshelf for five years unthumbed. But RashDash’s Three Sisters is something else, a rallying cry for theatre that is more relevant to our lives today, that reflects women’s voices and not just men’s, a vibrant, loud, all consuming manifesto. But maybe we have been working our way towards this for a few years.

In Anya Reiss’ 2014 adaptation of the Seagull at the Lowry, Guardian critic Clare Brennan concludes:

‘Wrenched from reality, the characters, however lively, become inconsequential; sets of behaviours without depth. Honer’s final production … is simultaneously thrilling and infuriating.’

In Sleepwalk Collective’s Domestica last year we see:

‘Stereotypes of Chekhov’s three sisters, women forever leading boring lives waiting for men to decide their fate. Except of course in this piece of art they do choose to decide their own fate.’ 

RashDash create a unique piece of work using Three Sisters as a starting point. Best described as a mix of text based theatre, vibrant music and performance art, it’s loud, physical and with well defined characters. I suppose you could say that if Chekhov’s text is the perfectly balanced photograph, then RashDash are creating the kaleidoscope of colour negative. Whereas Chekhov is introspective and quiet, RashDash make the point quickly and effectively and with a great deal of impact. And it’s all supported by an amazing set design that references both traditional and modern themes.

Three Sisters Production Photos
Rash Dash Theatre
Photo Credit : The Other Richard

It doesn’t always work. The devised style lends itself to chunks of themes, and at times we miss the depth we might expect. The endless costume changes are both brilliantly effective and disconcerting, but as most take place on stage the pace of the piece is maintained. The contrast between loud and quiet, light and dark, the body and the costume, is a bit like moving between sauna and ice bath. Always there is the message that the voice of the three performers (supported by two excellent musicians) will get through.

It is interesting to sit in the after show discussion and hear the company talk about how they used every piece of text from Three Sisters that they felt was relevant, whoever said it in the original. How they overlaid modern day ideas to show how women express what they are really thinking. It is fascinating to witness the way that RashDash merge text, movement and music to put across their message effectively. Much of the music (drums, electric violin, keyboard) is stunning and pulsating, a highlight being the reviews of previous Three Sisters performances; it’s not just the text but the rhythm applied to the words, the way the instruments add layers, the way each element weaves together to create a performance that stays in the memory long after the performers leave the stage.

Is this the way to go for the classics? Certainly this performance gives a voice to women who have been unheard for a century. It is true that in a world of theatre that has been for so long dominated by male writers and male lead characters that there might be scope to repeat this with many other texts. But as RashDash demonstrate, the most interesting part of the performance is in the characters they create and the strong voices they present. And it’s a tricky ask to reference a play that some of the audience know well, but many have never seen. We need to see strong, relevant and contemporary female voices on stage, whether through the writer or the performer. That is best served by creating completely new classics that reflect contemporary lives.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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