Three Sisters, written in 1901 just 16 years before the Russian Revolution, was the ambitious production choice of Frome Drama Club – ambitious because Chekhov’s twin themes, of the decay of the privileged class and the search for meaning in the modern world, are easier to deconstruct than to witness. It’s about claustrophobia and ennui, the inability to find a meaningful work ethic when society is corrupt, the disappointments and casual brutality of relationships, and the loneliness of living with no way of understanding what life is about. ‘If only we knew...’ are the final words of the play, and the closest to comfort comes from the drunken doctor: ‘Nothing is real – it really doesn’t matter.’
Chekhov apparently took his initial inspiration from the life-story of the Bronte sisters - three creative woman whose life chances are betrayed by a weak brother. Here, Andrei represents the upper class submergence to cruder peasant energy, and his three sisters embody the main theme of the quest for life meaning: the woman who works, the wife, and the idealistic girl unlike her sisters not dragged down by duty. Yet…
Not a play to go head-to-head with Strictly in terms of easy entertainment, and with a cast of 15 some variability of performance is inevitable but there was a much to admire in this production. The set impressively created the Prozorovs affluent house and social standing, the costumes were immaculate, and director Robert O’Farrell brought out the sense of stifling tedium in this provincial town which only the glamour of military presence could ameliorate. The difficulty for a modern audience is not the subtext but the speeches, which are often not dialogue but monologue, addressed to the air or to the audience, with other characters simply moving away on some other business of card play or conversation. This struggle to find elusive connection works best when it allows characters to discover and disclose hidden feelings - Kulygin, (Paul Laville), the cuckolded husband of middle sister Masha, is particularly good at this. Jade Taylor’s Masha was exceptional too, as was Philip de Glanville's disillusioned doctor, but for me the star of the night was Naomi Parnell’s Irina, who not only looked duel-inspiringly beautiful but had mesmeric stage presence and inhabited her role emotionally throughout. Congratulations, FDC. Thanks, Harry, for the photo.
To the Lighthouse in Poole on Saturday, for another play about a class-conflicted culture in turmoil and shadowed by war - England, 2006 and we’re still sending Our Lads out to Iraq to slay monsters. What turns an ordinary binge-drinking boy into a brutal war criminal? could be seen as the central question of Days Of Significance but actually this scalding play, commissioned by RSC from writer Roy Williams, was originally produced in 2008 and has been ‘recently reworked’ for its recent tour to respond to 'the shift in mood since the withdrawal of troops' and presumably the atrocities scandal. Roy Williams says his intent was to show that “war matters to all of us, no matter who you are.” In that sense, this play is as contemporary as tomorrow’s news from Afghanistan and as timeless as caveman conflict – and perhaps didn’t need the intellectual moral problem of the veterans’ trial at the end.
The writer’s other inspiration, he says, was the Beatrice and Benedict banter in Much Ado, cleverly and almost-plausibly updated in the street scene outside the club on a typical weekend night. Other Shakespearean elements were strong too: routine feuding a la Montagues and Capulets, the fairy-tale wedding in the final act when Steve and Clare (Simon Harrison, delightfully crude to the last, and Sandy Foster) like Theseus and Hippolyta draw the cast around them for the ending of the evening’s revels. This self-referentialism worked well, bringing deeper undercurrents to a story of chaotic lives needing focus and longing for heroism. But the jokes about ‘Beatrice’ and quips direct from Little Britain become borderline intrusive, and despite the physical realism (one of the actors has invalided himself out of this run with a wrenched fist) I was left with a feeling the actors were translating, rather than inhabiting, the culture of their roles – possibly conscious of an audience more comfortable with conflicts on the streets of Verona than those of their own home town.
In a successful ensemble piece it's unfair pick anyone out, but I will: Dan Ben and Trish (Luke Norris, Toby Wharton, and Sarah Ridgeway). An amazing set created clubland and Bazra equally effectively – aided by a delapidated Coca Cola poster – but the directional tendency to ‘use the space’ of the huge stage left some of the intimate interactions looking oddly theatrical and made the script seem awkward. But having said all that, a brilliant performance overall, and despite the blood puke piss and casual violence, I'd happily watch it all again.
And finally: BBC guidelines.. not just there to feed quips for HIGNFU and fuel the fury of Moyles in the morning - these innane and patronising new directives have a more sinister role too. "It's difficult enough writing drama without being given rules devised by Kafkaesque committees" writes TV dramatist Stephen Poliakoff, "and it's completely unnecessary. Audiences are quite capable of realising that when real events are compressed for drama, certain liberties have to be taken. It's very important that writers in television tackle unfamiliar stories - they can't do that if they're artificially restricted." Good point well made.