Touring – reviewed at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s Lung Ha Theatre Company has created a strong and emphatically direct production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a new version by Adrian Osmond at the Traverse and on a short tour.
Lung Ha’s is the Edinburgh-based company for actors with a learning disability and it has become known for productions which get inside their texts in ways which illuminate them in a very different light to usual.
In such a way, this Three Sisters is classic Lung Ha. Osmond has pared the script to its essence, while director Maria Oller has cast the play so as to push its performers just that little bit beyond their comfort zones, with some quite exceptional performances as a result.
The three sisters of the title live in a provincial town in the house left to them by their recently deceased father, a military man. Moscow born, the sisters hope one day to return there, but are stuck in their idea of their past and continue their father’s way of keeping open house for his military colleagues.
Emma McCaffrey is a commanding force as the oldest, schoolteacher Olga; with Nicola Tuxworth a determined Masha, married to Latin teacher Fyodor (Gavin Yule) but in love with the philosophy-spouting Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin (Paul Harper). The youngest sister, Irena, is given a brilliantly nervous edge by Emma Clark, spoilt by everyone around, unwilling to commit but courted by both the erudite Baron Tuzenbach (Michael Connolly) and the plain-speaking, anti-intellectual captain Solyony (Scott Davidson).
If this is their house – and their way of life – their position is undermined to the point of destruction by their fliberty-gibbet of a little brother Andrey, who Kenneth Ainslie creates as a vacillating man, lost in his own desire.
That desire manifests itself in the form of Teri Robb’s Natasha, a town girl who is first seen as a figure of ridicule, but who marries Andrey and takes over the running of the house while he has to mortgage it – without his sister’s permission – to pay his gambling debts. Her long-running affair with Protopopov, the leader of the town council, is open knowledge and it seems, by the end of the play, that the transfer of ownership to her and her lover is all but official.
It’s this utter transparency to the text which makes this stand out in terms of the performances. There’s no missing the nuance here, whether it is Vershinin’s philosophical musings about the nature of existence and our place in history, or Natasha’s disdain for her husband’s family and their liberal leanings.
The number of performers at the company’s disposal also helps support this simplicity to the narrative. Many servants hover in the background, while groups of wandering players reinforce the theatricality of the telling.
The staging is created with great care and attention to detail, both visually and musically. Karen Tennent’s design suggests at the depths of the house – and when necessary, uses Andrew Gannon’s lighting to turn indoors into outside, with the paper walls suggesting the shadows of the encroaching forest.
The live music, by Finnish composer Anna-Karin Korhonen, has a strong Russian feel and its melancholy tones are based on traditional Russian folk tunes.
Lung Ha recently had its funding first taken away as one of Creative Scotland’s Regularly Funded Organisations, and then reinstated. While there are serious questions to answer about the process of those decisions, there is no question to answer for the power of this company to create great theatre of a kind which is unique and which speaks with a voice that it not elsewhere heard.