'Three Sisters by Rashdash after Chekhov' review or 'Let's strip this thing down.'

'Three Sisters by Rashdash after Chekhov'
The Yard Theatre, 23rd May 2018

How many times have you left the theatre thinking these kind of thoughts about the female actors involved (I know I bloody have): ‘I wish I could’ve seen more of her on stage’; ‘She did brilliantly with what little she had’; ‘Why do women in theatre have to be so broken?’; ‘Why did she have to be naked in that scene?; ‘What happened to female friendship on stage?’

‘Three Sisters by Rashdash’ is a gloriously direct, defiant and madly energetic response to concerns such as these. It’s a fuck you to tired theatrical traditions and out-dated assumptions about the role that women might play on stage. It deals with a lot of the same issues as Ella Hickson’s ‘The Writer’, but whilst Hickson thinks, talks and plots her way through these ideas (Why do we tell stories on stage?; Why are these stories almost always written, shaped, paced and positioned by men?), the Rashdash troupe take a much more physical, musical – visceral - approach: they sing, wail, thrust, wink, wobble and head bang their way through their ideas, with their exposed boobs wobbling, voices booming and eyes turned defiantly towards the audience. 

The barest remnants of Chekhov’s ‘classic’ (never has the need for quotation marks been more pressing) remain: there are still three sisters. They are still called Olga (Helen Goalen), Irena (Becky Wilkie) and Masha (Abbi Greenland). [FYI, the temptation – when listing these three sisters – to reduce them to ‘types’ is overwhelming and utterly engrained: Olga the weary one, Irena the optimistic one and Masha the Minx]. These three sisters are still trapped in a provincial town; still mourning their father (ish); still bored out of their brains and still taunted by the tick-tock passing of time.

And that’s about it for similarities. Just occasionally, the three sisters (backed up by two proper musicians, Chloe Rianna on the drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on the violin and synth) might revert to type and pluck out vaguely familiar sounding phrases from the original play – but these snatches of dialogue come wrapped up in heavy irony and sound hopelessly thin in this restless and neon-new context. There’s such a simple premise at the heart of this production and the dazzling and depressing fact is just how rarely this idea is addressed with any sort of rigour in the theatre: Chekhov’s Three Sisters does not work for us anymore. Time Is Up. (Katie Mitchell’s shows are on obvious exception and she strikes me as a real inspiration for this troupe).

Alongside those ironic flickers from the past comes an exceptionally playful present, which unfolds – with a sort of wildly gushing energy – on a loose and ready set. Rosie Elnile’s stage looks like an open invitation for destruction. The small space has been filled with props – a chandelier, piano, bath, endless decadent dresses – that suggest a hotel, just on the verge of being thoroughly and irrevocably trashed. Oh, and in the corner rotates a plastic mould of Chekhov’s head, stern from the front but in reality just an empty shell. 

Music is the life-force of this show, which is pretty damn handy: it’s basically impossible to be bored during a song. The company has devised all the songs and they sound so bang up to-date that I had to check with the PR they weren’t nicked from the charts. Masha/Abbi Greenland’s songs are throaty, husky, bold, and rumble with a sort of gleeful melancholy (‘I won’t go quietly’, she booms!). Helen Goalen is an addictively provocative presence and, whatever she does, it feels like she is asking us to think differently and Becky Wilkie’s Irena is deceptively strait-laced but increasingly unbuttoned and, quite frankly, just a little bit bonkers.

All three sisters are natural comics and, somehow, more than just actors. The production acts as a sort of talent agent for the three performers and two musicians on stage. Every new song, dance, routine or sketch unearths a new talent and each new turn gives us a stronger feel for the real person that lies beneath the performance. Interestingly, although the three sisters get more and more naked as the show goes on – never have I seen so many boobs so often – the nakedness never feels reductive. We see exposed boobs and naked bodies so frequently and in such barmy contexts (look at that ruffle residing proudly over those breasts!) that the boobs and bodies become irrelevant. Actually, they don’t come irrelevant they become a part of these actors; they become a natural part of their character rather than an indulgent and blinding distraction.

Most brilliantly of all, here is a group of women who listen to each other, respond to each other and respect each other on stage. Watching ‘Three Sisters’, I realised how often it feels like female actors are somehow in direct competition with each other in the theatre. It’s actually quite unusual – and how depressing this is to admit – to see a group of women so palpably working with each other, sharing the space and actively helping each other shine. They sing together, laugh together, play together; drape their bodies over each other and stride madly about the stage, as if their three bodies have now become one. 


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