Filter’s last take on a classic text involved turning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into a 90-minute chaotic, drunken party with audience participation and on stage jam sessions. So audiences at their latest production Three Sisters may be surprised to see that not a word has been changed or omitted in their far less deconstructed take on Chekhov.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth, but his masterpiece Three Sisters contains themes that are as relevant today as they were then. While middle-class strife and the desire to work in order for life to have meaning may not be as familiar to us in a world of Heat magazine and MTV, the sisters’ desperate longing to return home to Moscow, their burning hope and desires that do not fade over time, and the difficult, fragile family relationships are concepts that have not changed.
Living in their dead father’s house with their oddball brother (Ferdy Roberts) who descends into debt and becomes more ridiculous and useless as the play goes on, the three women try desperately to make their place in the world while idealising their home town Moscow and their old life. While soldiers and even husbands inhabit the stage with them, the three sisters are undeniably the planets around which everyone else revolves.
While Filter have kept the play in Russia, there is no clear sense of time as each sister is placed in the period which most fits her character. Oldest sister Olga (Poppy Miller) is the most traditionally and conservatively dressed, reflecting her spinster status and her conventional, stoic disposition. Middle sister Masha (Romola Garai), dressed in masculine trousers and a trilby hat is strident and mysterious. The most passionate and depressive of the sisters, Garai perfectly portrays her constant irritation with her overly accepting and doting husband, and her utter dissatisfaction with her life with a confident, sulky sexy edge. In contrast youngest sister Irina still believes in happiness and her ability to find her place in the world, reflected with her modern dress which even puts her in skinny jeans and a hoody at one point.
Although the play is not overwhelmed by sound design, Filter’s unique use of the tool is very much present. An onstage sound engineer plays blasts of Belle And Sebastian and The Smiths during set changes and punctuates the text with literal interpretations, making the onstage boiling of an electric kettle an impressively tense three minutes as the characters watch its progress while the sound resonates around the audience. Microphones are also used to create secretive corners where whispered confessions are delivered in amplified, husky tones, while stage managers walk around the set not attempting to hide their work from the audience in a strange meeting of reality and play.
While Filter have undoubtedly stamped their unique, modern and minimalist edge onto what is considered to be one of the great texts, the heartbreak and struggle of the three sisters remains as hard-hitting and raw as it always has been and Filter’s decision to not change a single word reflects the sheer perfection of this play.