Three Sisters / Swan Song

by Anton Chekhov / ‘Three Sisters’ in a version by Nicholas Wright, ‘Swan Song’ in an adaptation by Mark Wheatley / 2012, Embassy Theatre, Central / Directed by Ben Naylor with Jenny Ogilvie / Set design by Wong Yatkwan / Costume design by Nadège Adlam / Lighting by Edmund McKay / Sound by Luke Pajak

This mash-up of Chekhov’s masterpiece Three Sisters with his earlier burlesque Swan Song was my first – and thus far only – directorial assay at Chekhov; as well as the first time I’d directed a show in the main-house Embassy Theatre at Central; and the first of a pair of directorial collaborations with another award-winning actor and movement director, Jennie Ogilvie.

We used Chekhov’s short play and clown routine Swan Song, in a brilliant new translation by Mark Wheatley, as a curtain-raiser, and also as a conceptual framing device. In Swan Song an ageing actor, Svetlovidov, has passed out drunk in his dressing room after his final benefit performance; awaking hung-over, he comes out on stage in the empty auditorium, where he encounters the impoverished stage manager Nikita and they bemoan, reminisce, and, with Nikita prompting, replay scenes from King Lear (material which neatly linked into the opening of Three Sisters).

This prologue served to situate the action of Three Sisters theatrically rather than realistically, and simultaneously allowed us to play some metatheatrical clown games with the audience. The two characters from Swan Song turned up in the action of Three Sisters intermittently: in the minor roles of the soldiers who bring the samovar in Act 1, the clowns at the door in Act 2 and the gypsies of Act 4. In each of these interventions Svetlovidov, the actor, would be unsure of what he was attempting to do on stage, subtly disrupting the dramatic rhythm; Nikita, the stage manager, would awkwardly guide him, moving the audience between the supposed locations of Swan Song and of Three Sisters and to the present theatrical moment.

The pictures above, of Yatkwan’s elegant design, Nadège Adlam’s precise and unfussy costumes and Ed McKay’s realist lighting, suggest a ‘traditional’ production of Chekhov. Aesthetically it was; but the metatheatrical games meant that the audience were never allowed to comfortably escape into the hyper-realistic onstage world; and the characters on stage were never allowed to forget their own theatricality. To accomplish this Stanislavskyan-realist telescoping, we spent the first days of rehearsal improvising a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian theatre company, preparing to give the final benefit performance for a retiring actor. So all the actors were first and foremost playing actors – loosely based on MXAT actors of the period – before playing parts; and each had a full and rich inner life beyond that of their Chekhovian character. This double narrative was pushed to the limit in a sequence in which Vershinin appeared, to his fellow actors’ and then to the audience’s great consternation, to completely forget his lines; until he was saved by the prompting of Nikita, the stage manager. We resolved this double narrative at the end, the final stage image returning us to the moment before the beginning of the play: the toasts at the curtain call at the end of Svetlovidov’s benefit, before he gets drunk.

If it sounds complicated, it was; but the post-modern interventions never derailed the story or the audience’s engagement in Chekhov’s extraordinary play. The excellent cast attended to period detail with commitment and precision in research and in performance, finding a style both naturalistic and theatrical; or rather, a style which couldn’t be pinned down as either naturalistic or theatrical. As well as simply enjoying playing theatrical games with the audience, this was an attempt to solve the problem of how to wrench Chekhov out of the straitjacket of post-Stanislavskyan acting without abandoning Stanislavskyan principles. In order to make naturalism theatrical, we chose the setting of a theatre, naturally.

Photography by Luke Pajak