ANTON: Ivanov / Three Sisters

A double bill over two weeks from the company ‘Anton’, this unique theatrical project has lived up to its hype, writes HANNAH QUINN.

ADC theatre, 7.45pm, Tue 12 – Sat 23 February, £10/£8

Sat 16th Feb (Three Sisters), Sat 23rd Feb (Ivanov): 2.30pm

Ivanov directed by Charlie Parham
Three Sisters directed by Emily Burns

How do two classic plays about boredom and family politics in rural Russia manage to be the most exciting thing I’ve seen in the theatre this year? Ivanov and Three Sisters, one of Chekhov’s earliest and one of his latest plays, are perhaps not the most widely performed of his works, but on this evidence, it’s difficult to see why. One is almost a farce, the other nearly a tragedy, though both are too complex to neatly categorise.

I have to admit, when I walked up to take my seat on the stage to see Ivanov, I was a little sceptical. The staging had the ring of a gimmick, I thought. I wondered if it would prove to be artistically justified. But when the curtains came down and the lights came up – excitingly topsy turvy – I felt my scepticism trickle away.

Sometimes plays at the ADC can feel a bit distant. Here, since we’re sitting on the stage itself in (270° of) the round. The actors are close enough to reach out and touch. Well – so far, so Corpus Playroom. The clever part really is how the space is used: the raising and lowering of the curtain at significant moments; the way that, at the end of Ivanov, Theo Hughes-Morgan’s eponymous lead steps out to face an empty auditorium as if to take a bow. But while the staging is the most striking element of the shows, and is certainly interesting, it’s hardly groundbreaking. The real talent lies in the acting and, perhaps most of all, the direction.

This was naturalist performance at its most electrifying, all-consuming best. Too often it’s synonymous with unimaginative: if nothing else, these productions show that this shouldn’t be the case. For me, though, some of the best parts of both plays were the moments when the directors risked that naturalism: Parham’s Ivanov in particular stood out for some bold directorial decisions. The scene changes, for example, were incredible: strange and thrilling, full of energy and symbolism.

In both plays, you can see that every second, every word, every movement, has been agonised over. This company aren’t content to say their lines on a distant stage and politely sit backstage during the interval; the plays overspill and blur the lines between audience and actor. Of the two, Three Sisters is the more conventional – the acting, at least to begin with, slightly less assured, some lines slightly garbled, and the scene changes slightly less slick. It’s still incredibly powerful, though – I used the word electrifying earlier and while Ivanov was a series of short sharp shocks, Three Sisters was a deliciously painful tingling.

There’s lots of specific details about both plays I’d like to bore you with – the longest, funniest silence I’ve ever seen in Ivanov; Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey’s powerful and moving performance as a hysterical Masha in Three Sisters – but I’ve just checked the style guide, and the word count doesn’t quite allow it. But a mention must be made of Tom Russell, consistently wonderful in both plays, especially as the philosophising lovestruck soldier in Three Sisters. All the leads, in fact, were fantastic. If the minor characters slipped slightly into caricature at times, it was only in comparison to the sheer level of talent on display beside them.

Seeing both plays on consecutive nights forces you to make links between them: the stylistic similarities were obvious, and the handful of actors in both plays lent some semblance of continuity. I’m not sure seeing the two together adds anything much to the experience of either, though it’s an interesting perspective on Chekhov’s development as a writer. The earlier play is a frenetic, unwieldy thing; the latter, a more subtle and sophisticated affair. It’s a difference that’s highlighted well by the direction.

The hype surrounding this so-called ‘Chekhov season’ is largely deserved. In what I can only assume must be a work of charmingly self-deprecating insight, the ADC has labelled it a “a rare chance to see how versatile and exciting the ADC can be”. Let’s hope the undoubted success of Anton means those chances will be a little less rare in the future.