Chris Goode is basically a God in the eyes of those who care about there being any sort of a British avant garde, the Gate Theatre is currently enjoying a renewed sense of vitality under the new joint artistic directorship of Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami, while Olivier Award winner Rupert Goold’s company Headlong are pretty much one of the hottest around. So it’s no small cause for celebration that Goode won Headlong’s recent search for a director to present an idea for radically reinterpreting a major European text at the Notting Hill venue. His proposal was essentially to conduct a controlled explosion within Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Rather than simply presenting the play from beginning to end as it is written with the right number of actors, Goode takes six performers, all of whom have learnt the entire script – a new version by Goode himself – and through a process of collaboration and experimentation the company have created a kind of ongoing improvisation structure within which fragments of the play are brought to life with performers apparently free to slip between characters, backwards and forwards in the text, intervening in one another’s decisions and moments, joining in, usurping or tacitly directing.
The result is as intriguing as it is review-proof. There is the distinct feeling that certain moments have a certain amount of fixity - each scene delicately builds to a distinct climax. However, the route taken could vary enormously. As such one can only relate what one saw, and resolve to return at the earliest possible opportunity for a second look.
The choice of six performers looks like a who’s who from Britain’s alternative theatre scene. Each retains something of the unique qualities that make them such engaging performers, while at the same time still managing to form a coherent unit.
The idea of liveness is very much foregrounded here. The visible elements of chance and negotiation between the performers become as fascinating as the fractured narrative itself, while the introduction of an actual bunny rabbit onto the final stage – another completely unpredictable random element – seems to confirm that this is indeed liveness of a very different order to the norm.
What is interesting, however, is the way that through the performers shifting through characters taking different parts and doubling up as the same person different passages of the text become highlighted and through repetition and differing emphasis, seem to acquire additional resonance, often building into plaintive, polyphonic mantras as perhaps only one or two lines are repeated over and over again.
In this way, although there is nothing so simple as Stanislavskian naturalism, the piece frequently creates an emotional charge. Goode’s translation (adaptation?) of the script renders the language as very modern, surprisingly fresh and almost punky in the way that the sisters express their suffocating sense of being betrayed by life. In some ways it is surprising that the adaptive elements don’t mess more with the sense of the play, but at the same time this very point suggests that this is indeed a successful and imaginative way of working with a classic text and, rather than obscuring the play, is indeed a fascinating way of re-seeing it.