Gate Theatre, 5 June – 5 July 2008

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Who says naturalism is the surest path to emotional truth? …Sisters, Chris Goode’s “live rewiring” of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Gate Theatre, delivers 85 minutes of poignant and emotionally charged theatre using a decidedly non-naturalistic mixture of ensemble performance and improvisation.

The selling point of the production is that it’s different every night. Major casting and directorial decisions are made at the last minute by drawing straws, or spinning the bottle, or are sealed in mysterious envelopes that flutter down from the flies. Some lines are improvised; others are read at random from scattered slips of paper. Ticking clocks, ringing bells and animal cries could be cues for the cast or red herrings for the audience. The six performers regularly exchange characters throughout; during the course of the evening it’s possible for one character to be played by every member of the cast, individually or even all at once.

As someone only vaguely familiar with Chekhov’s original text, I can’t say I found the play easy to follow. Certain important plot points are emphasised (the family’s father died a year ago; the sisters are consumed by the idea of Moscow), or at least, they were this time. But try and dig a coherent Three Sisters out of the marvellous shambles on stage and I imagine you’ll have a very frustrating evening.

When both plot and character are obscured or ignored in this way, all that remains is the raw emotional arc of the play. This is a text boiled down and reduced to the broadest of strokes. The sisters are full of hope and ambition; they’re disappointed when their dreams fail to materialise; disappointment turns to screeching, weeping frustration and finally to a kind of shellshocked acceptance. It may lack subtlety and subtext, but it speaks to an instinctive, reactionary level of emotion that naturalism’s pregnant pauses could never reach.

Whether or not this makes good theatre depends on what you want theatre to be. If you want realism, a portrait of life as it is, …Sisters is a catastrophe. If you think theatre should be political, it’s confused at best. If you want West End spectacle, keep to your West End comfort zone.

What makes …Sisters great theatre is its gleeful exploitation of theatre’s transience. While it’s debatable whether cinema and television are responsible for the continuing decline in theatregoing, Goode’s production reminds its audience what the stage offers that the silver screen can’t: a unique experience that can never be exactly repeated. Plays are born and die with the rise and fall of the curtain, and …Sisters pushes this to the extreme, offering every new audience an experience that has never been seen and will never be seen again.

Written by Chris Goode after Anton Chekhov

Crew includes Chris Goode (director), Naomi Dawson (designer) and Anna Watson (lighting)

Cast includes Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson

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