The TheatreguideLondon Review
As its name suggests, the theatre company Filter likes to reinvigorate overly familiar texts by forcing them through the company's stylistic sieve, a kind of neo-Brechtianism characterised by minimal sets, open theatricality, onstage technicians and stagehands, and the strategic placement of microphones to allow characters to turn key speeches from conversation into public announcements.
Their treatment of Chekhov's masterpiece, co-directed by their frequent collaborator Sean Holmes, is actually more restrained than, say, their recently revived Twelfth Night. Staging and characterisations are fairly conventional, and the Filter-ish touches legitimately contribute to the drama, as when Masha's discontented mutterings are amplified or when characters seeking to escape from a painful moment retreat to the visible far corners of the stage wings.
So the power of this production is essentially the power of the play, quietly enhanced by staging devices that don't get in the way - and of course the power of the play is undeniable. The portrait of a family sinking into stasis because they just don't have the energy or gumption to change is as moving, frustrating and occasionally darkly comic here as it always is.
Many in the large cast give what those who know the play will recognise as traditional characterisations, but done very well. Jonathan Broadbent's Tuzenbach is amiable and more than a bit foolish, Ferdy Roberts' Andrei is from the start a nonentity-in-the-making, and Gemma Saunders' Natasha satisfyingly witchy.
If Mark Theodore doesn't really solve the mystery of Solyony's nastiness or John Lightbody offer much sense of what it is in Vershunin that attracts Masha, Paul Brennen manages to make the cuckolded schoolmaster thoroughly comic while retaining a sweet dignity.
The most original touches come in the title characters. For once Poppy Miller is allowed to play Olga at her stated age of 28 rather than as a half-desiccated old maid, making her almost totally passive descent into the rut more touching.
Much the same is true of Clare Dunne's Irina, not the insipid Ophelia/Juliet figure usually played, but a strong and vital young woman looking forward to life, so that her descent into despair (particularly in the fire scene) is all the more dramatic and powerful.
And Romola Garai for once gives us a really sexy Masha, a woman who under any other circumstances could have had a rich passionate life, so that the brief taste and withdrawal of what-might-have-been is particularly heartbreaking.
I sometimes hesitate to recommend 'experimental' productions of classics to those who haven't seen the originals many times before. But this production lets all of Chekhov's drama shine through, while also offering a modest introduction to a very inventive company.
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