London’s flagship theatre, the National, is starting a run of a modern, multi-culti – RELEVANT! – version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with an all-black cast.
As you recall, the play is about three women from a gentry family who grew up in Moscow, but are now stuck in a provincial town. Though they live more than comfortably and enjoy a brisk social (and other) life with the officers garrisoned there, they desperately want to return to Moscow, with its brisk cultural (and other) life.
The leitmotiv of the play is the recurrent phrase “To Moscow, to Moscow!” repeated in variably febrile tones. In fact, the great poet Osip Mandelstam once quipped: “Someone ought to have given those girls three rail tickets for Moscow at the beginning of Act I.”
Three Sisters is quintessentially Russian in a way in which, say, Shakespeare’s plays aren’t quintessentially English or Ibsen’s quintessentially Norwegian. It reflected the general contempt cultured Russians felt for country life, and still do.
Having to live anywhere other than Moscow or St Petersburg was seen as cruel exile, no matter how luxurious the exiles’ country estates, or how stimulating the company of their similarly confined neighbours.
That’s why British (though not French) audiences often respond to Three Sisters with consternation. Their desire to get away from Moscow, for which read London, is at least as widespread as the craving vectored in the opposite direction. Give a Londoner a mansion with a large park somewhere in Gloucestershire, and he’ll happily leave behind his chicken coop of a flat somewhere in Chelsea.
Yet somehow London audiences make the requisite leap of imagination, and Three Sisters seldom stays off West End stages for long. In my 30-odd years here I’ve seen various productions so many times that, as far as I’m concerned, the play should be renamed Thirty Sisters.
Now call me a racist, a snob or a stick-in-the-mud, but I’m unlikely to see this one: my imagination just can’t leap that far.
From what one can glean reading the previews, the play is now set in a 1967 Nigeria just before the Biafran Civil War. Hence, rather than Olga, Masha and Irina, the eponymous, chromatically different sisters are named Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo.
To be culturally consistent, I’d think the ubiquitous battle cry must now be “To Lagos, to Lagos!”: portraying Moscow as the object of geographical craving would require one’s imagination to break every conceivable long jump record.
This attempt to attune classical plays to modern cultural and political sensibilities is by no means unique to this production. Nowadays just about every Shakespeare production features modern dress, modern music and modern accoutrements, such as computers, planes and tanks.
To be entirely up to date, many cast black actors playing white roles, women playing men and men playing women. Sometimes, as in the recent production of Richard II, the same actors play both female and male characters in the same play — confusing the hell out of the audience (well, me).
When I first saw Ophelia wearing torn jeans and gyrating on her bed to the sound of a boombox, I suffered a shock from which I still haven’t recovered – especially since it has been exacerbated by many subsequent atrocities in the same vein.
The problem with applying such a makeover to Shakespeare is that all those transvestite transculturalists continue to deliver Elizabethan lines, albeit as a rule not very distinctly. Surely any director, no matter how hubristic, should be put off by the tasteless dissonance? Fat chance.
Today’s directors worship in the temple of modernity, not art. The word ‘vandalism’ never crosses their minds – they don’t care what kind of aesthetic atrocities they perpetrate by catering to the warped tastes of today’s audiences and, especially, critics.
Reading the previews of the Nigerian Three Sisters, I recalled a crude but accurate Russian joke about a modernist production of the same play.
The dress rehearsal is under way. Forestage is Masha, fellating her love interest Vershinin. The director, sitting in the front row with a notepad in his lap and a pained expression on his face, winces. “Tania!” he shouts at the actress. “Stop champing! This is Chekhov!”
I’ve tried the same joke on my English friends, replacing Masha with Ophelia and Vershinin with Hamlet. They always laugh ruefully: the joke works because it’s only a slightly grotesque take on gruesome reality.
I’d be curious to hear the actresses in the upcoming production shout “To Lagos, to Lagos” in Nigerian accents. But £150 for two tickets is too much to pay for satisfying perverse curiosity.