One of the best experiences one can have in the theatre is to see a classic play that one knows almost by heart and feel one is seeing it for the first time. Very few directors can deliver this. Peter Brook is one, and Declan Donnellan is another. He and Nick Ormerod have been running Cheek by Jowl since 1981 and still haven't run out of steam. Three Sisters is the third production I have seen by their Moscow-based Russian company, after Boris Godunov and Twelfth Night. It was fantastic -- innovative, insightful and very moving. It's my favourite Chekhov play (though Uncle Vanya comes close) and I've seen it performed many times since I studied it line by line in Russian as a student back in the 1960s. But I've never seen it done so well.
There are almost as many ways of playing Chekhov as there are of playing Shakespeare. Almost, but not quite. His characterisation and story structure is so subtle and packed with subtext that his plays are a kind of super-trampoline on which directors and actors can bounce around to their heart's content, discovering an infinite series of possibilities. The one thing that doesn't work is to wrench his plays out of the context of place and time in which they were set -- 1890s provincial Russia. That's why Katie Mitchell's production of The Seagull at the National last year didn't work. I can't attempt to explain exactly how Donnellan works but it seems to me he encourages his actors to go on exploring their roles and taking risks long after most directors would stop. The resulting moments on stage are often radically different and unexpected. There's a moment in the unbearable tension of the final act of Three Sisters when Natasha, the vulgar mother-of-two who has usurped the sisters' home, spots a fork lying on stage and says 'Who has left this fork lying around?' as she exits. Often it's just a throwaway comic line, but in this production Natasha uses the fork as a dagger to keep the sisters at bay before rushing off in hysterics. I also loved the way in which the sisters cower and cringe at Natasha's persistent attempts at physical intimacy, when she kisses, pats and hugs them in a way they just cannot handle. It's one of the great virtues of this production that it is quite unsentimental about Olga, Masha and Irina. When schoolteacher Olga complains how tired she is, it's not a piece of heroism but a rather modern 'OmygodI'msostressedout' kind of exclamation. It's a strikingly original reinvention of Chekhov's text that never tips over the edge into excess. As with Lev Dodin's Maly Theatre production of Uncle Vanya, also seen at the Barbican a year or two back, one gets the sense of a real creative ensemble at work.
Chatting to the actors afterwards, I gathered that reviews in Moscow have been less enthusiastic than here. It may be that the tradition of rather fusty realism and long-in-the-tooth casts that I remember from the Moscow Arts Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s is still alive and well, and that Russians don't like their Chekhov mucked around with. If so, that's a pity. I left the remodelled Barbican (full of the ghosts of the Royal Shakespeare Company) thinking that Chekhov is an even better writer than I thought when I went in. Which is what's supposed to happen in the theatre, but often doesn't.