Postcard from Paris 2
Les Trois Soeurs by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov, Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe
I’ve been an admirer of Simon Stone’s work since his early productions of Spring Awakening and Platonov with The Hayloft Project in Melbourne, and especially his extraordinary production of Thyestes in the Tower Room at the Malthouse in 2010 (which is being revived at the 2018 Adelaide Festival).
A meteoric rise followed with further productions at Malthouse, Belvoir Street, STC, MTC and overseas. Stone’s version of The Wild Duck in particular made an impact around the country and in Europe, and he himself later adapted it into his first feature film, The Daughter. After engagements in Europe with companies ranging from the Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Young Vic, he’s now an associate artist at the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris; and last weekend I was there to see his new French version of Three Sisters – a production that was originally staged in German at the Theater Basel in 2016 and revived at the Berlin Teatertreffen earlier this year.
In recent years, Stone has developed his own distinctive approach to the work of Ibsen and Chekhov, rewriting them in a contemporary idiom, taking increasing liberties with structure, plot, character and dialogue and unapologetically crediting the result as ‘by Simon Stone after Ibsen/Chekhov’. He encourages his actors to adhere to an almost cinéma vérité performance-style, and then frames or encloses them in spectacular sets, often sealing them off behind glass and equipping them with high-fidelity body-microphones. This further liberates them from the need to ‘play to the audience’, and heightens the sense of denial or entrapment that is entirely appropriate to the characters, as well as situating the audience as voyeurs, somewhat uncomfortably observing lives that (at least on the surface) might well be our own.
As with Stone’s previous adaptations, the action of Les Trois Soeurs is transposed from fin-de-siècle Russia (or Norway as the case may be) to the present-day overdeveloped world (Europe, Australia, it hardly matters). The setting also shifts from a provincial family home in a military outpost to a family holiday house some hours’ drive from a nameless city. It’s a trim, somewhat soulless modernist two-storey chalet of wood and glass, designed in dazzling detail by Lizzie Clachan and featuring everything that opens and shuts including a cluttered kitchen, a piano in the living room, and a working shower in the bathroom upstairs. The floor-to-ceiling windows are of course crucial for the audience to witness the action inside.
Chekhov was a master of dramatic irony, especially when it came to events and sounds occurring offstage (laughter, a band playing, trees being cut down, a duel, a gunshot). Stone inverts this by having the ironies unfold even more cruelly in front of our eyes: characters have sex, take drugs, use the bathroom and even kill themselves in full view of the audience while their partners and siblings elsewhere in the house remain blithely unaware.
Crucially, the set also rotates, thus enabling the actors to move around the house as the ingeniously choreographed action demands. In the first two Acts these rotations occur during transitions that more or less correspond to ‘scene changes’ (though these don’t really exist in Chekhov) and are accompanied by Stefan Gregory’s moody soundtrack (and a group sing-along of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ in the living-room at the end of Act Two); in the final Act the house turns slowly but continuously throughout, which gives an added sense of inevitability as the play approaches its climax.
The three sisters and their brother, together with their partners and hangers-on, make three fateful visits to this privileged getaway over the course of the three Acts (Stone truncates the architecture of the play as well) and the same number of years. In the first Act (as in the original) it’s a year since father died, and they’ve come to the house to celebrate the youngest sister Irena’s birthday, but also to scatter dad’s ashes near the house he designed and built himself. In the second Act, they’ve come there to celebrate Christmas, only to discover that their brother André, his wife Natasha and their newborn child have moved in. And in the third and final Act (a kind of conflation of Chekhov’s Acts 3 and 4) they’ve come to pack up the house before it’s sold.
The house itself thus comes to be a major character in its own right: a metonymy for the dead father himself, as well as being what Bakhtin would call a chronotope or ‘time-place’ which is visited at times of symbolic transition during which reflection takes place, truths are told, impulses acted on and life-or-death decisions made. It’s a familiar device in ensemble-plot-driven cinema and literature as well as theatre (the weekend getaway, the group/family reunion) and helps to justify some of the heightened emotions that Stone’s adaptation wrings from Chekhov’s somewhat more enervated original.
In comparison with these changes to the setting and structure, Stone’s character embellishments are relatively minor. The youngest sister, Irena (a luminous Éloise Mignon, who was also played Hedwig in Stone’s Wild Duck and Anya in his version of The Cherry Orchard with the MTC), is an intellectually and emotionally frustrated idealist in search of meaning through community work and a string of unsatisfying relationships. She’s surrounded by an entourage of male devotees that includes her wealthy and tormented on-again-off-again boyfriend Nicolas (Laurent Papot), his unstable narcissist rival Victor (Thibault Vinçon), who can’t resist waving his gun around and firing it (an echo of Uncle Vanya); and her devoted alcoholic uncle Roman (Frédéric Pierrot) who (as Stone makes explicit in his version) had an affair with Irena’s mother and is possibly her natural father. The middle sister Masha (Céline Sallette) is a depressed novelist unhappily married to Théo (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), an indefagitably cheerful teacher who tolerates being humiliated by his wife because he adores her and blames himself for the fact that they can’t conceive a child (another extrapolation from the original). The oldest sister, Olga (Amira Casar), is apparently the happiest with her lot: as in Chekhov, also a teacher, childless and apparently single (but in fact a lesbian in a stable but unseen relationship, as she reveals to her surprisingly shocked siblings late in the play). Their brother André (Éric Caravaca) has been turbo-charged by Stone into a feckless addict whose weakness for drugs, gambling and his gold-digging girlfriend Natasha eventually leads him to lose everything, including access to his children and the family’s ownership of the house itself – Stone here foreshadows The Cherry Orchard by having André sell the house to Natasha’s wealthy new husband (who plans to have it demolished) in order to pay off his debts). There’s also Herbert or ‘Bob’ (Assane Timbo), a gay optician and friend of the family (a witty conflation of the somewhat underwritten roles of Rodé and Fedotik in the original); and Alex (Assaad Bouab) – no longer a military officer temporarily stationed in the town, but a neighbour (the son of a local mechanic) whose wife (as in Chekhov) is mentally unstable, and whose affair with Masha provides a brief but doomed flicker of happiness for them both.
The major character-arcs and relationship-plots depart from their prototypes most significantly in the final Act. Masha tells her husband and siblings that she and Alex are leaving for Brooklyn, but Alex then reneges at the last minute and decides to stay with his wife and daughters; Olga and Uncle Roman reveal their secrets; and (the most dramatic change of all) instead of being almost casually killed offstage in a duel, Nicolas steals Victor’s gun because he believes Irena doesn’t love him and shoots himself (a regression to the more Ibsen-like ending of The Seagull) – with the added twist that (unlike Chekhov) this suicide happens onstage in the upstairs bathroom while all the other characters are offstage desperately looking for him.
It seems specious to complain (as some Parisian critics have done) that Stone’s adaptation is unfaithful to the letter or spirit of the original. In fact many of the changes he makes to the plot come from other Chekhov plays; it’s almost as if he’s written a new addition to the corpus based on a kind of Chekhovian DNA. Notions of what is or isn’t ‘Chekhovian’ are often obscured by performance traditions, which are worth clearing away in order to reveal what might lie beneath the dust. The meaning of a work, as Walter Benjamin argued, is not fixed but continues to reveal itself in future interpretations. Watching this production, I had the feeling that this might be what it was like to experience Chekhov when it was first performed: reflecting the world of the audience back at them, in all its shocking banality.
To be sure, we live in a very different world from that of Chekhov’s time. In this respect, the original play is a kind of prism through which Stone is able to present his (and to some extent his generation’s) experience of contemporary existence – mediated as that experience is (at least for those of a certain social class) by a given canon of theatre, film, music, literature and philosophy. Admittedly, one feels at times as if one is trapped in a kind of Simon Stone universe, which owes as much to Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen as it does to Ibsen or Chekhov (the chain of influence is too obvious to require further commentary). But that is surely the case for any interpretative artist who has something to say, and chooses to say it using texts with which they have an elective affinity.
In fact Stone’s preoccupations have been remarkably consistent over the years, as is evident in his choice of texts (and rewriting of those texts). Suicide is an obsessive motif; characters grapple with sexual or existential anxiety; and suffer from symptoms of hysteria or depression, especially around questions of masculinity or femininity; but then, who doesn’t these days? To be sure, these are themes already to be found in Ibsen and Chekhov (hardly surprising as they are the inventors of modern drama); but in Stone’s adaptations they are given a contemporary inflection.
As such this reading of Three Sisters draws a compelling parallel between the ‘lost generation’ of Chekhov’s original and Stone’s own ‘millennial’ generation. Both are children of a failed or unfinished revolution: the period of reform in 19th Century Russia that degenerated into terrorism, reaction and finally violent revolution; and the period of the 1960s–70s which has (so far) been followed by a similar (if uneven) course of development around the world (currently arrested in a prolonged period of crisis with no clear outcome yet in sight). Whether it will likewise give birth to the monstrosity of a successful revolution, or whether we can keep faith with the task of a permanently unfinished one, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the portrait of collective despair in Les Trois Soeurs rings powerfully true.
Les Trois Soeurs by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov runs until 22 December at the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe.