3xSisters and independent theatre (a polemic)

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.

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6 thoughts on “3xSisters and independent theatre (a polemic)

  1. Jana,

    I enjoyed reading your review (and defence) of Hayloft’s Sisters and I think your observation about the independent/mainstream theatre industry in Melbourne is quite correct to a degree, but I would like to make the point that few theatre companies in my experience seem to evolve from such altruistic motives and very few of us, I think, would feel we were being ‘asked’ to do anything by the MTC or Melbourne audiences. We simply do what inspires us.

    Red Stitch began as an actor’s collective and its motives were to choose the best plays we could find for the actors to practice their art (the more ‘well made’ the better). Whatever the flaws in that model, happily very few of the texts we chose were appropriate for an MTC audience – the bulk of the theatregoing public in Melbourne you’d have to say – so we were able to carve out a ready niche for ourselves as an indie production company specialising in performance and exciting new text. We didn’t – and still don’t really – have the resources to develop new work (although we have made some small steps in that regard) and our production budget is lean to say the least.

    It’s true the MTC and other companies (post Playbox) have become a bit more adventurous since the so-called ‘rise of the independents’ and there is a much greater variety of work on offer in Melbourne today than there was ten years ago – but what we’re talking about here is wasted talent and underemployed (usually unpaid) talent picking up the bill. So many artists who cannot access career paths in the large, state-funded theatres are forced to create companies on what used to be called ‘the fringe’. Yet the only way we seem to be able to speak of a fringe sector in terms of its usefulness (and appropriateness for support) is where it evidences the potential to be an ‘engine room’ for new work or where it is seen to be shattering form and expectations at every opportunity. This is a necessary and laudable goal but it is inherently risky and few companies can survive by dedicating their entire output to the practice.

    Do we have the will and foresight to incorporate the ‘fringe’ sector into the mainstream, and enhance our theatre culture, over time? There needs to be pathways for imaginative new (and old) directors, designers and actors to work as directors and actors and designers in the big state-funded companies. I mean, how likely is it that any Green Room Award nominated artists will pop up in the next MTC season? Not likely. And, sorry, but a one-off remount or resident season at a larger venue is all well and good (particularly when one is being paid for the first time in a long time), but it only lasts as long as it takes for the larger venue to get brownie points (or worse, Green Room Awards) for being seen to support ‘young’ artists and that is the end of it as far as the guest company is concerned.

    If we can’t provide these kinds of pathways in our major state-funded companies then we need to expand the funding pie to provide resources for smaller medium-sized companies to do just that.

    I am hoping that the Australian Theatre Forum next week will address some of these issues of the distribution of resources but I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t get past the ideological debates surrounding ‘Why and What is Theatre’? (valid questions but …for artists and critics to answer ,thanks).

    David Whiteley
    Red Stitch Actors Theatre

  2. Jana says:

    Hello, David,

    what you say is all correct. I wonder if the state-funded organizations are held accountable (enough, or in the right ways). I am aware that our models for assessing unmet consumer demand are imperfect (to say the least), and that long and winded are the ways of bureaucracies. Sydney seems much better at cherry-picking talent out of the independent ranks and giving them mainstage exposure. The disconnect between MTC or Arts Centre and the independent arts is just about complete.

    However, it seems rather unfortunate that the basic, simple well-made theatre is such a rarity in a city like Melbourne, which does have an audience that clearly supports it. That the big-stage theatre so clearly tries to compete with bad television, rather than create good theatre despite the talent that this city has, is the same error of judgement that, for example, is orchestrating the death of newspapers as we know them; sabotaging the medium in order to bring it to the audience, instead of cultivating an audience (and not something I’d call audience development). I find it vaguely infuriating that Ionesco, Beckett, Crimp, Kane, are a rare occurrence on the mainstage; or that foreign theatre seems limited to colourful ethnic performances once every now and then. These are all questions that should go with funding – but, as I’ve said, I’m aware of the problems associated with funding accounting; it goes beyond arts.

    Apart from Red Stitch, Hoy Polloy is another company that tries to fill this glaring gap in our repertoire by staging interesting new dramatic texts, and Hayloft was widely praised for doing the same. It’s a genuine lack, I agree, and something both the audience and the practitioners want more of. It’s a missed commercial opportunity for better-funded operations and, as you say, there is little support for those who try to fill the gap outside these mammoth institutions.

    But perhaps – just perhaps – the sector could cultivate a new theatre audience by staging exciting, genuinely exciting new work, like 3xSisters. This is where critics like Woodhead, particularly in his last review, in my opinion do harm incommesurable with the apparent assessment of one production. Perhaps there’s an audience for brave new theatre with or without Chekhov. But who will dare make brave new theatre if Mr Woodhead is coming to review?

  3. Jana says:

    Forgot to mention: enjoy the talkfest. I hope I’ll hear all about it…

  4. Jana, I can think of many exceptions to the lack of decent main stage straight plays – Peter Evans’s productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf or Blackbird, that marvellously ott MTC production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, say… even the celebrated Exit the King. And if the MTC isn’t cherrypicking talent (though isn’t Adrian Fennessy associate director now? and their casting is pretty interesting these days) it’s a bit naff to ignore the Malthouse, which plugs right into the indie scene. Things can always be better, but I’m really not sure this perceived lack is such a big problem as you make out. Nor that Melbourne theatre from whatever sector is quite as dull as you claim.

    But really. Is Cameron’s presence really going to wither all the nascent excitement in Melbourne theatre? Is the approval of the Age the most that people want to aspire to? I can’t buy that. And if it’s true, which I seriously doubt, then why would people bother?

  5. […] we recognise it immediately. Again we are at the point, so common in this young country, where we proclaim the 20-something as a genius. Again that need not to demand the learning process from others – perhaps because then we would […]

  6. […] accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was […]

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