Theatre Review: Three Sisters, Sport For Jove – Seymour Centre, Sydney (performances until 13th August)

Director Kevin Jackson freely admits Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters is his favourite play of the last century and you can certainly feel the love in Sport For Jove’s production of the classic work, now playing at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale.

The three sisters are Olga, Masha and Irina, who we follow over a period of five years in early 20th Century Russia. Through their relatively uneventful lives, we observe the enduring human desire for meaning and happiness. This is essentially a classical soap-opera but with philosophical depth.

As part of the staging of the show, Jackson and Sport For Jove hosted a series of lectures and information sessions exploring the influences and factors shaping the work of Anton Chekhov. The results of this immersive research are evident throughout all elements of this production, from the folk songs punctuating the action, to Emma Vine’s perceptive costume design and even the food consumed by the actors during the performance.

Paige Gardiner
Paige Gardiner

Georgia Hopkins has provided a wonderful set for the actors to play with that mimics the narrative while retaining an authenticity often missing in modern productions. Similarly, every prop (and there are seemingly hundreds) has been curated with the utmost care. The opening act is presented on an open stage, carpeted wall to wall in a patchwork of rugs, upon which sits a motley mix of ornate furniture. It is a lush, busy environment that reflects the frenetic conversation and constant flow of traffic that takes place within it. As we move into the second half, and the characters become increasingly disillusioned with their lot, the play space delineated by the rugs is halved; this decision both acknowledges that the action takes place in the smaller, upstairs parlour, while also reflectively surrounding the actors with empty, black space. In the final movement, the carpets are rolled up and the furniture hidden beneath a white sheet, replaced with white wicker garden furniture, and lush green pot plants, which portent the new beginnings awaiting the characters.

Jackson was delighted to be given free reign (as indicated in his program notes) by the company to cast this play. His exhaustive efforts certainly paid off – the acting in this production is terrific and there is not a single weak link in the cast. As the sisters, Janine Watson (Olga), Paige Gardiner (Masha) and Zoe Jensen (Irina) display a genuine bond that radiates through every scene. Watson handles the transition from youthful student to matronly headmistress masterfully. Gardiner and Jensen have the trickier task of delivering the over-the-top emotion necessary to accurately represent the European sensibility to a laid-back Aussie audience, and they do so with beautiful conviction. All three richly deserved the thundering applause they received on opening night.

Tom Campbell and Janine Watson
Tom Campbell and Janine Watson

Other cast standouts are Justin Stewart-Cotta (Vershinin), whose brooding philosopher is immensely watchable, and the hysterical Kenneth Moraleda (Kulyghin), who steals every one of his scenes with his elegant physical comedy and immaculate timing.

Jackson has ensured that every member of this 20-person cast understands his/her purpose, and not a single movement or gesture seems superfluous. Frequently, characters remain on stage but outside the action, continuing their own narrative in silence. This does not detract from the main players, but you could easily be forgiven for losing a few minutes just watching these actors, such is the conviction of their performance.

What is also a wonderful directorial tactic is the overlapping conversations of the opening act. There is a realism to this suggestive of film or TV drama, whereby actors do not simply ‘rhubarb’ in the background but conduct audible side-bar conversations that regularly intersperse with the primary text. The effect is one of opening the door onto a real room, in which actual people engage energetically, motivated by a desire to posture and play. No one is really listening to each other – they mostly want to be seen. And it would be remiss not to acknowledge the clever offstage dinner scene, which adds to the fly-on-the-wall feeling.

Zoe Jensen and Graeme McRae
Zoe Jensen and Graeme McRae

Unfortunately, Jackson’s love for this play also manifests in over three hours of translated text, and that is what ultimately lets this production down. Although he already owns 23 different translations of the play, Jackson called on friend Karen Vickery to create a new rendition. Vickery’s text is etched with today’s ink while staying true to Chekhov’s philosophical intentions. The words flow effortlessly from the mouths of the actors, with a smattering of Russian thrown in to remind us of its origin. But nothing appears to have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor, making this a bit of an endurance piece for actor and audience alike. There is poetry in the repetitive nature of Chekhov’s writing for sure, but there are just too many circular conversations to give real power to these ideas.

Chekhov’s characters frequently ponder the future, 100 or 200 years hence, in which all of society gets to experience happiness as a simple consequence of being alive. But what we realise as we watch Three Sisters today is that the only true prediction of the future is that humans will always quest for meaning. Jackson has so effectively communicated this message in this production that you leave the theatre feeling slightly deflated, and also a little exhausted!

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Three Sisters is playing at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre until 13th August. For tickets, visit: http://www.seymourcentre.com

The reviewer attended opening night, Saturday 30th July.

Photography credit:  Marnya Rothe