In a discussion with a director on how to progress their career, RashDash were told ‘to engage with the classics.’ Well, they’ve certainly done this here and much more besides, engaged, provoked and smashed through the strictures of Chekhov’s play to make their own statement about who gets to decide what the classics are. It’s raucous, sexy, angry, funny, messy, baggy and a whole heap of fun. Its statement theatre that doesn’t forget the showbiz, play as much as gig, lecture as much as burlesque. Smartly however, they haven’t committed cultural vandalism with the 1901 piece, for anyone remotely familiar with the tale of theSergeyevich sisters the pieces overall aesthetic quality is caught well and there are echoes of the plot dotted throughout frivolity.
So the director’s advice has been followed to a point. It is clear the play has been studied, discussed and given a vision. A very RashDash one where the girls sing rock, strip out off and back into a number of limited and limiting outfits, try to de-pants each other and pose in perfect reproductions of the original Moscow Art Theatre tableaux’s. In the corner there is a bust of Chekhov’s head facing them, whether you read this as reproaching or encouraging is surely based on how much you think a radical of his time would take to a full on raiding of his work and ideals. Even he may have arched his eyebrow at being breast fed though.
If anyone is expecting a full on frontal assault of a past master, they will come away surprised. The work is more subtle than that. At one point they even provide cheerleaders for the Russian, running on stage in perfect unison to give an ode to Chekhov’s genius. Instead, what they query is who has the right to present and indeed evaluate the classics. In one terrific episode, we are presented in song, newspaper reviews from a man, about a man presenting a man’s work. The Three Sister’s performances are swept to the side, the women at the forefront mansplained away by the usual cultural gatekeepers. In order to tackle this they argue, surely women need to plow on the front foot, writing the classics for the future which provide a different gaze.
I’m not sure all its points hit home. Early on, they sit in vast skirts, in casual ennui and despair and despair about how Chekhov couldn’t write women; yet the proof is in the pudding; there are many terrific roles for women in all of his great plays, admittedly vastly different to the behaviours of the modern feminist, but placed in the context of the political and social situations probably no less relatable than the roles of the men from the same writer. The women they throw up here, variations on the original sisters, Sloane types yearning for the country, bemoaning homelessness, and heartbreak and creating feel no more relatable to many than the original characters.
It is also a little on the long side at 90 minutes, the company perhaps falling into the trap of becoming specialist 60 minute fringe creators and struggling to expand their material up by another half an hour. Yet ultimately it doesn’t stop the night from feeling vital and alive. Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Becky Wilkie, the core trio of RashDash put 21st century women, their agency and confusion, their desire and fragilities to the fore and demand an audience. Chekhov and his ilk, the work seems to suggest, are important but so are they: right here, right now. RashDash are the present and women will be creating the classics of the future. Look out Chekhov.
Three Sisters plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 16 June