3xSisters is an extraordinary production, and possibly the best thing I’ve seen the independent theatre do in Australia yet. Examining Chekhov’s classical play with the confidence that comes with serious effort, large amount of talent, and big budget – as usual with Hayloft Project – it does what independent theatre should do: it insists that we know only that we don’t know anything.
Directorially divided between the founder of Hayloft and the darling of theatre neocons, Simon Stone, Black Lung’s Mark Winter, and Benedict Hardie, Sisters are pushed through not one, but three very different interpretative sieves. The parts were assigned by pulling bits of paper out of a hat, and created in isolation from one another: it would have meant something else (equally valid, perhaps more interesting) had the order been different, but the current composition, with its rather serendipitous symmetry, poses a number of big questions.
Stone opens the show with a clean, emotionally intact presentation: in a waiting room, under a row of clocks showing time from Tokyo to Berlin, the characters in evening clothes argue, break into tantrums, leave and confess secrets over the microphone. This is classical Stone, an elegant and accessible overview of the emotional content of the play that respects both the text, the characters and the audience, even as it amplifies the melodrama and ripples the textual surface.
But thus created high-strung dinner-party is broken as Hardie interrupts what is now revealed as a rehearsal. Actors are back on stage in tracksuits and wielding script photocopies. After Stone’s reduction of the text, Hardie’s prolonged reading of a scene suddenly exposes Chekhov’s beautiful, worshipped words as something both flinty and muggy and not necessarily working on stage, a mixture of chat and small-town philosophising that dies under actorly enunciation. If the scenes build up emotional intensity, they do it against the words, against the flat rehearsal reproduction, sloppily overtheatricalized, butchered by overzealous reverence. It also restores some humour, regularly overlooked in Chekhov. In a moment of absolute beauty, Vershinin delivers an intense monologue, after which the director announces that “now he can move”, and Angus Grant politely takes a few steps across the stage.
In what’s directorially the most accomplished part, the play is then amped up into Mark Winter’s mass-mediatized pastiche of pop references. Police drama, family stories of the American South, and teen tragedy are all smartly built as logical consequences of Chekhov’s provincial malaise. Told from the perspective of Solyony, the mentally destabilized soldier of the original text, it digs out not so much the 19th-century Russian violence simmering behind the genteel Prozorov walls, but the utterly strange evolution of mainstream entertainment since drawing-room drama. The pathetic Natasha, lower-class bride quietly caricaturized on the margin turns into the Oedipal Southern woman O’Neill or Williams will find; the naive Irina into the crippled child-woman of suburban slacker genre (local Dogs in Space comes to mind), but also the semi-retarted sister of all those 90s teens having sex and drugs on film (there must be a name for that fad by now); the quiet existential despair of the Prozorov sisters escalates into the 1970s urban nihilism, until ultimately it resolves itself (or rather knots itself into suffocation) in the decadent upper-class boredom as exemplified by Brett Easton Ellis: a carnivalesque party in which sorrow is smothered by meaningless sex and violence. Within Winter’s uncompromising dramaturgy, a contemporary theatrical impulse to make a classic relevant by giving audience titillation, is explored to the extreme that, despite the ironic humour, still hits the mark.
Directorially, the whole is bigger than the parts. While gorgeousness abounds, each director plays with an amount of trite moments (those buckets of blood are by now a convention teetering into cliché, and all those misguided microphones), effectively shorthanding his aesthetic. It is in the sheer accumulation that this production finds its magic, in the discourse created between the directors. Hayloft has made a name for itself as mainstage-by-other-means. Black Lung, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall orchestrated chaos (their last show, Avast II, in particular, was a consistent/beautiful jumble of pop culture). To attempt, seriously, to merge such different work into a single piece, with balls and budget, is an act of enormous courage.
It is not Chekhov, Hayloft makes it clear, but a discussion among types of contemporary theatre and the audience. It is a bitch of a production: it argues and plays devil’s advocate in a way that is perfectly, spot-on un-Australian. It is theatre as an unresolved creative argument. From the elegant to the grunge end of the independent theatre in Melbourne, visiting restrained deconstruction on the way, it is a merciless inquiry into what-the-fuck we go to the theatre for when we go to the theatre in Melbourne. Pitching completely incompatible ways of tackling the sisters one against another, the three directors raise different questions and offer differing answers, resulting in a wonderful clamour that enlightens as much as it admits its own limitations. Each part implicitly criticizes, ridicules the others, each fails on the terms of the other two, yet each succeeds in a different way and, finally, each makes demands on the audience to justify its expectations, demands and assumptions. Rather than a clean, safe ‘experiment’ that we are so often told we see (an oak tree or the nudge-nudge-wink-wink deconstruction of No Success Like Failure), which surprises no one and discovers nothing new, because it is conducted with scientific safety, not creative recklessness, 3xSisters explodes into an unruly, unexpected synergy that goes beyond the force of any individual part.
As audience, we are repeated seduced by each honey-mouthed approach: we find emotion, laugh at our own bourgeois need for catharsis through language, enjoy the ironic gore. Yet once we have been convinced to swap sides and condemn bourgeois entertainment and the worship of language, after the inerval the production takes us back, through Hardie’s third, then Stone’s fourth act, first into a text that still resounds sweet, despite deconstruction, despite our awareness of our own jejune worship, and finally into an emotional response we disagree with, but cannot quite help. We are cooed into agreeing and disagreeing with so many opposing arguments, that the play finishes with the audience shell-shocked by its own, until now unacknowledged, sensibilities. Precisely by giving us everything we could possibly want in the theatre, the incoherence of this gluttony (how can we want both dinner-party neurosis and a splatterfest?) confronts the audience with its own, now estranged, needs.
For as long as the mainstream theatre in this city remains dinner theatre, independent theatre will keep being asked to assume the role of the mainstream. Since there is no big stage to see time-preserved Beckett on, we need to see it at La Mama. Since MTC will not do a clear Sarah Kane, it must happen at Red Stitch. And since a good Chekhov is nowhere to be seen, Simon Stone must make it. Even worse, since good solid mainstream needs to exist externally before we feel safe enough to plunge into experiment, shock, questions, we continue to confuse consistency of shape and colour, or some form perfected thirty years ago, with ‘beauty’ and ‘lyricism’. The paradox is that it becomes more acceptable to believe in the autodidact genius (Simon Stone’s treatment being the finest example), and praise well-done, elegantly repeated work, as extraordinary etc, than allow that artists need to experiment, fail, risk and grow.
Hence I take offense at reviews such as Cameron Woodhead’s in The Age. I would not take issue with the formal pedancy of calling a montage “dog’s breakfast”, were it grounded in something more than this unacknowledged, self-evident stance that theatre is to be beautiful, as in coherent, as in simple and elegant, as in well-made. As broad as this desire sounds, it excludes uncertainty, inner conflict, clashes of colour and worldview. Provocative work is praised, yes, but only if wall-to-wall grunge, only if it clearly marks the edges of its offensiveness by never crossing unexpected thresholds, by never mixing its own provocation with anything we genuinely hold dear, or with, say, emotional impact. In other words, beautiful comes to mean something we can sink into like a comfy chair, something consistent, something safe. It becomes a question of style, rather than content. The beauty of 3xSisters is a difficult, emotionally complex beauty that has more to do with the inner life of the audience that the colour coordination of stage business.
It was Jerome Bel who, a few years ago, stated in this city that theatre must be allowed to try things, that the path to success goes through failure. To attempt a production that cannot possibly succeed on the terms of the local well-made play (either preppy or grunge) strikes me as an enormously courageous act, something genuinely important for the Melbourne theatre scene, and something to be applauded even if it failed in its own terms – and this production certainly doesn’t. This is why young theatre artists are here: to create, not repeat models that were perfected around 1975. The moment they are asked to replace the state theatre companies, just because we don’t have a healthy mainstream theatre sector, they are effectively asked to act older and more experienced than they are, and create the sort of work that can best be done, and should be done, within well-funded institutions. No one becomes a respected interpreter of Chekhov at the age of 20-something. Not even in Australia, no. It takes decades of asking questions from oneself and the audience, of trying and failing and all that Beckettian stuff, until one genuinely knows how to reduce their experience into a simple, elegant masterpiece. 3xSisters is not here to be inspiring and revered: but it does bring the entire independent theatre around a table, starting a genuine discussion, one to which we don’t the answer yet. Rather than being about Chekhov, it is about theatre, which strikes me as an equally noble pursuit.
To conclude: to ask for an illuminating interpretation of Chekhov from recently graduated students – particularly when the company announces they are not doing that – is misguided and unconstructive, but to accuse a montage of inconsistency, I am sorry, Mr Woodhead, is dumb. There are other things in art as important as colour-coordination and lyricism. There is more than one way of making theatre, and asking very difficult questions is the one that offers the highest return. Mr Woodhead, let the independents be independent. Must they really constantly be asked do the MTC’s job?
3xSisters. Direction: Benedict Hardie, Simon Stone, Mark Winter. Cast: Gareth Davies, Angus Grant, Thomas Henning, Joshua Hewitt, Shelly Lauman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Anne-Louise Sarks, Katherine Tonkin and Tom Wren. Set Design: Claude Marcos. Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill. Producer: Carl Nilsson-Polias. April 24 – May 10 at the Meat Market, 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne.