The Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Three Sisters has retained its Russian setting but it’s not the country Anton Chekhov would recognise.
That said, he mightn’t be too surprised to see it turn out the way it did.
Andrew Upton’s adaptation transplants the story of three sibling women dying a slow death of boredom in a backwater town to the pre-Glasnost years of the 1970s. This is a Russia run by old men, a time of profound disillusionment, economic decline and repression.
“We needed to show a world where these women made sense,” says actor Alison Bell, who plays Olga, the eldest of the sisters. “There were constraints on women that aren’t necessarily there now.”
The sisters are “vibrating with energy”, Bell says, but there is nowhere to focus it.
“There’s nothing wistful about them, it’s not all ‘ah Moscow, Moscow’,” says Bell. “These are ferociously intelligent people in the prime of their life and they are constrained. They have a yearning for meaning, they vocalise it all the time. These women talk because there is nothing else for them to do in this town. They have words and that’s it.”
It’s an exciting energy to try to capture on stage, says Bell. “They are big characters. I think Chekhov asks you to be bigger than you are as an Australian. His Russians are passionate and unapologetic about being an elite. It isn’t the way Australians speak or think. We are not philosophical people.”
Bell’s onstage siblings are Eryn Jean Norvill (Masha) and Miranda Daughtry (youngest sister Irina).
“I think young women will relate very strongly to Masha and her lashing out at the world she finds herself in,” says Bell. “It will resonate. So will the sisters’ relationship to men. These are times when women are still looking to the men for solutions. But there’s a beautiful moment at the end of the play when there are three women left on stage and Masha says ‘we have to remain and we have to live’. The men have all gone. We’ve arrived at that point in 2017. It’s us. It’s just us now.
“It’s really challenging work,” Bell adds. “We are all finding it really challenging and I hope that means we are doing Chekhov justice.”
And have they? Read Audrey’s round-up of the critical opinion on opening night here.