From London: Stanislavski and Brecht in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Lyric Hammersmith

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by

Upon entering the glass sliding doors of the Lyric Hammersmith theatre lobby, I am immediately greeted by a giant white wall covered in colored writing.  This colored writing contains quotes and reviews gathered from various anonymous theatre goers over the years.  One quote in particular sticks out.   Now, whether it be fate or luck, this little quote would not only define the experience of the theatre venue itself, but the performance of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters as well.  “Inclusive, generous, boundless.  Dull it most certainly won’t be.”

To begin with, the theatre is located on Lyric Plaza.  Nestled in between a café and restaurant, the Lyric belongs to an area of London that is highly populated by the working class.  Each white wall is splattered with hand painted, almost graffiti like, writing of anonymous quotes, directions to the theatre and toilets, or further information about the theatre and its mission statement.  The theatre itself is a velvet Victorian structure that began its life as an Opera house in 1895.  Red velvet covers the seats and walls throughout as the incredible balconies, booths and proscenium arch are all trimmed with beautiful white and ivory stone sculpting.

Yet, this classical and historic architecture found around the stage is very quickly juxtaposed by what was found on the stage.  As I search for my seat amongst the beautiful opera house theatre, Salt-N-Pepa’s song “Push It” is blazing from a speaker on stage.  Wait a minute.  Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a play set in the 19th century that comments on the decay of the upper class in Russia, is it not?  Even though it is a modern interpretation, how does the sweet sound of Destiny’s Child and “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” relate to the initial interpretation at all?  Interesting.  “Dull it most certainly won’t be.”

The set itself included an array of furniture that covered the stage with no particular rhyme or reason.  A singular balloon attached itself to the large dinner table onstage, signifying some sort of party was about to take place at the opening of the play.  No curtains could be found in the wings, causing the audience’s sightlines to include all back-stage fly systems, tech ladders and even industrial work lights.  Lights that were placed overhead were not hidden at all, but rather exposed and put on display.  It was immediately clear that any audience member desiring to suspend their disbelief would be in for a rude awakening.

Three Sisters focuses on three different sisters living in a provincial Russian town who all experience instances of “hope, despair and vodka”, according to the Lyric Hammersmith program.  The action begins with the celebration of the death of their father.  Throughout the first act, the audience is introduced to the three sisters, Olya, the eldest, Masha, the middle one , and Irina, the youngest  Chekhov takes the audience through the sisters’ problems with love, the discovery of their duty in this world whether it be marriage or work, and their strong desire to return to the Moscow of their childhood.  Subsequent affairs, hopes, dreams and aspirations unfold before our very eyes as the play continues.  Characters like Andrei, their brother, Verishin the Lieutenant Colonel, and the soldiers play a large role in the path and outcomes of these women’s lives in the end.

A constant argument in the play centers on change.  Throughout the play, the Colonel Lieutenant repeats how when civilizations many years down the road look back at the life in their little provincial town, the civilization will think “how bizarre?”  Other characters attempt to counter-act this argument by saying life will never change and will be the same for years to come.  In terms of the play and the Lyric’s interpretation, there are some very interesting points that arise.  To begin with, the Lyric’s production was a modern interpretation set in the present time, around 100 years after the play’s original setting.  The play, as well as the text and subject matter it covers, further establishes that life since then has not really changed.  The action unfolds before our eyes, dealing with issues of family, work, relationships and the other common stresses of life.  Suddenly, we realize that there is nothing “bizarre” about the lifestyle these characters are living.  This, in turn, makes this modern interpretation resonate a great deal more.  Not only does it represent the counter-argument to the Colonel’s claim, but it forces the audience to realize that there are always going to be certain commonalities of life when looking two-hundred, three-hundred or even a thousand years into the past.

Now, before addressing how Stanislavski and Brecht juxtapose one another in this version of Three Sisters, their particular schools of thought must be addressed.  Bertolt Brecht was a 20th century German theatre director and practitioner who created a performance convention of theatre called the alienation effect, or the Verfremdungseffekt.  Brecht had a large issue with how audiences were consuming theatre during his time.  He believed that more often than not, the audience was alienated from the process of theatre.  Specifically, the audience merely witnesses the final product, suspends their disbelief and feels some sort of emotional resonance to the source material being performed.  By releasing pent up emotions, an audience member can feel better about the issue that was addressed in the play.  Consequently, the audience member becomes passive, exits the theatre and is never quite moved enough to act on the injustice or issue addressed in the play.  In addition, Brecht believed that the process of creating a theatre performance remains as important as the finished product itself.  The process addresses the important questions of how a performance relates to the community from which it spawned, what the characters represent and why it matters in the end.  Brecht and his alienation effect force the audience to THINK rather than FEEL.  Through distancing the audience from the intensity and emotion of a scene, the alienation effect is able to force the audience to look at an issue with an open mind.  For example, perhaps to give more emphasis or meaning to a line an actor may break character completely, take out a huge banner that contains the line written on it and then read it off the banner.  This in turn breaks up any emotion being felt at that time, and immediately calls the audience member to think what the significance behind this action was.  What is meaningful about this line in particular?

An example of the alienation effect in this production of Three Sisters was the use of a stage manager dressed in a tech-backstage uniform, complete with headset.  The stage manager would walk on stage to light candles, produce sound effects and even hand props to certain characters when they needed them.  Occasionally, characters would address the stage manager directly, and other times she was just there to move certain things and provide the technical support that was needed.  Likewise, the use of microphones strategically placed around the stage allowed certain characters to whisper at certain points and still be heard.  Although this was an incredible touch, it was clear that whenever the use of a microphone occurred, the alienation effect was being used.  These instances completely break the illusion of what we believe to be a typical theatre performance.  It forces the audience to recognize the performance as a process, not a suspension of disbelief.

The playwright of Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov, worked very intimately with director Constantine Stanislavski throughout his successful career in Moscow.  Many of Chekhov’s plays were premiered by Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, including Three Sisters.  As a director, Stanislavski employed an acting technique known today as “The Method”.  This method or system forces an actor to search within themselves, find true emotion and completely embody a character’s desire, motivation, obstacles and actions.  Although he wanted his actors to be truly “in the moment”, Stanislavski maintained the importance of the actor still remaining somewhat detached from the character.  With Stanislavski, the actor is asked to feel more so than think, to lose his or herself in a character.  In the Lyric’s production, the actors’ performance followed this same method.  While always remaining in the moment, the actors never fell into the realm of the Brecht’s alienation effect.  Yet, the characters were forced to operate within the realm of an exposed stage with a stage-manager walking around.  Although the setting forced the audience to think rather than feel through Brecht’s alienation effect, the actors and their incredibly emotional “method” performances asked the audience to feel rather than think.  Consequently, an incredible juxtaposition occurs and a struggle for the audience understanding begins.  What becomes more effective and resonant to Three Sisters, the internal struggle of a character or the external appearance on stage of the process of theatre?

In the end, the production was in fact “inclusive, generous, boundless.”  It was not “dull”, but rather one of the most provocative performances yet to be experienced by the Arts and Performance in London course.  This production brought to mind the fact that performance and art requires effort, they are not a cookie-cutter products that can merely be placed on stage or in an art gallery.  The process of creating art or performance is just as important as the performance or piece of art itself.  Not only did this production of Three Sisters help me relate to the characters through feeling, but the added alienation effect has caused me to think about it as well.  I am forced to feel AND think.  Consequently, the juxtaposition between Brecht and Stanislavski continues, and now I must begin to consume this theatre in a completely different way than before.  “Dull it most certainly won’t be.”

 

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