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Reviewed by:
  • The Sisters
  • Telory Williamson
The Sisters. Scarlet Theatre in collaboration with Mandala Theatre. Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 29 August 1996.

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Figure 1.

The cast of the Scarlet Theatre’s production of The Sisters, adapted from Anton Chekhov, directed by Katarzyna Deszcz. 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Photo: Sheila Burnett.

Scarlet Theatre is a British company currently under the direction of Katarzyna Deszcz. Active in Poland’s alternative theatre movement, Deszcz trained in Cracow under Tadeusz Kantor. Her project to integrate actors, design, lights, music, and text as equal players in the stage space reflects Kantor’s teachings and fits well with the Scarlet Theatre’s process of generating material through improvisation and physical characterization. This work combines the best of both physical theatre and psychological subject matter, employing both abstract gestures and a keen sense of physical clowning in this adaptation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

The maid, Anfisa (Linda Kerr Scott), sets the stage for the production. Trained in mime, Scott accomplishes what Jacques Lecoq calls “taking the space,” entering with small quick steps, her body fully directed. Anfisa’s movements resemble the codified gestures of Peking Opera and the angular extensions of Martha Graham. “The play will begin soon, but we must have a theatre!” she announces centerstage. Accompanied by grotesque and sardonic circus music composed by Nigel Piper, Scott proceeds to place chairs on the simple stage. Hanging from a suspended grid are five cone lamps which provide sparse lighting. Upstage center is a set of glass French doors on wheels. Scott meticulously places chairs under the lamps, then exits, holding fast to Anfisa’s quick-step rhythm.

The three sisters enter. Each is stationed under a lamp with a specific gesture that becomes their identifying trademark throughout the play. Olga (Grainne Byrne) sits and examines her hands for signs of aging with a measured abstraction. Irina (Hayley Carmichael) stands giggling nervously, breaking into raucous laughter which must be suppressed. Masha (Athena Constantine) paces in a tight circle with heavy, purposeful steps. Anfisa enters and exits furiously patting her chest in anxious attempts to regain composure. Natasha (Jan Pearson) invades this gestural space with her awkward overbearance. Standing too close to Irina, she delivers and repeats the feigned endearment, “Many happy returns, Irina dear.” This artificial-line repetition continues as she approaches each sister, highlighting her forced entry into their space. Realizing her lack of physical authority, Natasha suddenly rushes downstage to “rehearse” her lines, cheeks quivering, trying to find an appropriate gesture. Settling on a haughty “cultured” pose to [End Page 231] mask her lack of wealth and grace, she holds herself tall and returns to the central lamp.

The characters’ speeches are made from the various lamps, punctuated by Anfisa’s entrances with a food cart and the presentation of visitors’ gifts. The sisters leave their posts only to stand behind the glass doors, their muffled voices divulging private thoughts behind the protection of this screen. Their soliloquies are distillations of Chekhov’s text, using physical gestures to achieve in motion what his dialogue provides. The stillness is broken only by unexpected movements: Olga’s legs open wide to thrust her torso backwards in surprise; Irina drops suddenly to the floor exclaiming, “Oh, I’m so tired!”

Without warning, the action loops back to Natasha’s first entrance, her line repetitions metonymic of the performance structure itself. Anfisa announces, “The play will begin soon,” marking the previous action as a formal rehearsal. In this repetition, Deszcz makes a clever and simple reference to Chekhovian stagnation: characters are trapped in domestic scenes which must be repeated, change being possible only through violent rupture of these patterns.

Violent rupture is indeed what possesses the movement in this second version. When Natasha approaches Irina, she responds by falling to the floor shouting, “I’ve had enough of all this!” What follows is a chaos unheard of on the traditional Chekhov stage. Irina rushes about the space, pushing everyone’s lamps into violent motion while declaring her hatred of such static space. This outburst is quickly checked by Natasha’s trumpeting, “Who’s making all that noise?!!” Silence returns as the...

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pp. 231-233
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