A mash-up of two reputed, complex and very different literary works – in this case, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and T S Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land – is never going to be an easy watch, but it’s an attractive idea. I can’t say whether this production does justice to either work, but it’s intriguing and engaging in its own right, if also somewhat mysterious at times to one not versed in the detail of the literature.
We find out at the start that the four siblings’ father died on May 5 exactly a year ago; there is no mother evident. Brother Andrei is head of the household now, a tight-knit family fallen on harder times. The three sisters’ gowns and a samovar indicate their background is Russian aristocracy; kohl-smudged eyes and backcombed hair add to an air of current dissatisfaction. That one sister has got herself a job as a schoolteacher suggests they grapple with transitory times.
One doesn’t have to understand everything (I didn’t) to appreciate the dedication required to produce their polished rendition of The Waste Land’s poetry, nor to admire the commitment each of the four actors demonstrate to the embodiment of their characters.
So much is packed into an hour, and it’s very creatively dreamed up. Some parts are fit to photograph: Andrei in a wicker chair playing the mandolin, a scene with flying tarot cards, and the sisters carefully laying out a Miss Havisham-esque life-sized puppet (their mother?) on a bench-cum-coffin.
On first impression the amphitheatre of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre lends itself well to the fairytale. It soon transpires though that the floorspace, designed to hold a lecturer, is too small for this play – consisting as it does of four actors, a dining table and four chairs, the wicker chair, a bench, two puppets, a hat stand and various other details.
It’s also noisy: furniture had to be moved around and props brought on and off, leading to a lot of clattering which, frankly, was grating by the end. Unfortunately, the sound magnifies as if coming out of a well, and competes with the actors’ lines – which also often came over too loud. I was there on the second day of an 11-day run, so there’s time for the company to address this problem. They couldn’t have anticipated it in rehearsal in Washington.
And it could do with being 15 minutes shorter. Several times I thought it was the end, and each time it came back to live… until finally, I found I’d lost track of it all.