When Simon Stone “overwrote” Lorca’s Yerma at the Young Vic last year, I was impressed — partly because he did so on a set that toyed with the apparent naturalism of the show (a perspex box, largely empty except for one brief fantasy of exclusively furnished bourgeois life, an aquarium in which the mic’ed-up cast were as physically close to the audience as they were distanced from us, their voices mediated, their bodies behind a transparent wall) and partly because Billie Piper delivered a performance of breathtaking intensity. There were problems with that show, to be sure: once Stone had transported Lorca’s narrative of a woman isolated in her rural, deeply conservative surroundings into contemporary London and turned the central female figure into a successful lifestyle columnist, the idea that a woman might be driven to madness by her inability to conceive a child became difficult to swallow. And as theatrically powerful as Piper’s onstage suicide at the end of the play was, that Stone transformed Lorca’s husband-murdering Yerma into a nameless self-destructive woman felt like a deliberate denial of agency to the female protagonist. Still: unlike some other critics, I didn’t think it was inherently sexist to portray a woman haunted by internalized social expectations of fertility or motherhood — even if those expectations were out of step with what everyone around her seemed to believe. Quite a few young middle-class professionals do, after all, still want to have children; and some of them are undoubtedly struggling with the inability to conceive, in some cases, undoubtedly, with serious consequences for their mental health.

Now Stone has overwritten Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and the Yerma figure is back: Masha, it turns out, suffers from the very same neurosis. Her and Kulygin (here: Theo) can’t conceive. And just like Piper’s character in Yerma, this non-child-bearing woman sublimates her desire into literary production: she seems to be a novelist, at work on her second book (the first is described as a depressing story of sexual hangups). The difference: it’s unclear whether she or Theo is infertile. Perhaps she is driven into her affair with Vershinin (here: Alexander, a random neighbour, the son of a garage owner) by the suspicion that Theo’s the problem. Or perhaps it’s because he’s a teenager in a grown man’s body, worrying about the girls at the school where he is teaching giggling about his moustache, quoting Kanye West, fantasizing about what could have been if he’d taken the athletic scholarship Stanford offered him way back when — rather than followed Masha’s demand that he stay with her at home in Switzerland.

Theo isn’t the only man fatally damaged by the woman in his life. Nikolai (aka Chekhov’s Tuzenbach) is Irina’s boyfriend when we meet him, about to be dumped. By Act 2, he’s still hanging around, even though he now has a new girlfriend — a relationship he thinks might last another six months. By Act 3, he’s about to get married to Irina, who’s responded to his new relationship by pursuing him, texting him silly jokes, giving him blowjobs in parking lots, “wanting me more than anyone has wanted me before,” until he “gave in” and slept with her again — knowing that it would be a mistake, because she would simply withdraw again immediately. So she did. And now, we find him broken by her emotional distance, her unwillingness to sleep with him unless she’s drunk, her inability to even say “I love you” spontaneously: so broken that he shoots himself.

Photo by Sandra Then

Photo by Sandra Then

“Uncle Roman” (Chekhov’s Chebutykin), too, seems to have lived for decades shattered in the aftermath of a nine-month relationship with the four siblings’ mother — with whom he wasn’t just in love (as he is in Chekhov), but with whom he lived, and whom he saw slip away back to her husband — pregnant, it seems, with Irina. Like Nikolai, Roman knew exactly what the woman would do when she went to visit “her children”; like Nikolai, he can’t stop what he knows will happen; like Nikolai, he is broken by it.

But women aren’t just cruel to men in this play. Masha is as callous about Alexander’s mentally ill, sometimes institutionalized wife as she is uninterested in meeting his children. That wife, Caroline, unseen as in Chekhov but not nameless, burns down Alexander’s family home (the fire that destroys an entire street in Chekhov but spares Vershinin’s house, here becomes a family affair). But Alexander, with saintlike devotion, recognizes that he can’t leave a partner as fragile as that, no matter what she might have done: “She is incredibly unstable right now. And she is the mother of my children, and the girls are so afraid.” Faced with the decision to abandon her and move with Masha to Brooklyn, he ends the affair, erasing all of Masha’s messages from his phone.

And then there’s Natasha. She’s problematic enough in Chekhov’s play, but here, she isn’t just casually mean (reducing Olga to tears at one point only to ask in faux innocence, “what’s wrong with her now?”), she’s a broad bimbofied caricature, with a rasping squeak of a voice, relentlessly dressed in pink, aggressively stupid and a demanding killjoy. And unlike in Chekhov, she doesn’t just have an affair. She divorces Andrey, who has to sell the house to cover his alimony payments — payments that Natasha, it turns out, doesn’t even need. Because she’s about to be remarried to her rich lover. Who, as she informs everyone when she shows up at house in the final act, has bought the house for her. But because it’s too small, they will now tear it down. (Yes, this Andrey is a gambler, too, and a drug addict to boot. He destroys the family’s trust fund by betting it all on a horse he thinks, in a drug-induced stupor, is named after their father. But the house? That’s lost to Natasha’s vindictive greed.)

On the fringes of the play, there are sketches of non-heterosexual desire: Olga, it turns out, has been in a long-term lesbian relationship all along; and Herbert, who also goes by Bob (cleverness alert: he’s both Fedotik and Rode from Chekhov’s original), is a super-promiscuous gay optician, lamenting that he’s getting too old for Grindr. He seems to be doing OK. Olga’s a massive stick in the mud, sartorially dull, a colourless moralist. But at least she, unlike the straight women, is no threat to the men in the play.

Here’s what Stone says about the women in his version in a long interview in the program: “In the original, they’re feminists; in my play, they are allowed to simply exist. … I don’t need to be feminist vis-a-vis Chekhov, because his figure are feminists already anyway, while the men are sensitive beings. The question of gender doesn’t really arise when over-writing Chekhov. The figures can simply be as they are.” But they’re not. Stone’s Irina is perhaps the most obvious instance: in Chekhov, she is being courted by two men, neither of whom she claims to be in love with. She certainly doesn’t pursue Tuzenbach the way Stone’s Irina pursues Nikolai. And while Tuzenbach wishes she were in love with him, she is sadly but perfectly clear that she will agree to marry him, but not because she loves him. And of course she doesn’t drive him to suicide either: Solyony, his rival, shoots him in a duel. Solyony is in Stone’s version as well, where he goes by “Victor,” and he is as off-kilter as he is in the original (if not more so), Irina rebuffs him as curtly as there, but he’s nothing more than a cynical presence in the final act — and the owner of the gun with which Nikolai kills himself. Where Chekhov’s Natasha’s nastiness is that of the social climber, most vicious to the female servants, Stone’s is a social climber who leaves broke men in her wake. Masha doesn’t just destroy men, she walks over women as well — unlike Alexander, who in his deep concern for his wife is a stark contrast to Chekhov’s Vershinin: the latter leaves Masha because the regiment is being moved to Poland. He chooses his career over their love — in fact, he’s leaving his wife and children behind as well, at least for “two months.”

One might argue that all the characters in this show are flawed, men and women alike. And that’s certainly true. But there is a key difference: the men may be weak, they may lack direction, they may be unable to follow through on their grand plans and schemes. But they are all damaged by the women in their lives. The women, only marginally more driven in their lives (though Olga is professionally successful as a school director, and Masha is a published writer), all, if they are heterosexual, prey on the men and wreak havoc in their relationships. There is simply no equivalent to this in Chekhov’s play.

Photo by Sandra Then

Photo by Sandra Then

The concept of “over-writing” is just fine with me: take an old play, improvise around it in rehearsal, write a new script based on those exercises. Use the dramatic structure and the relationships between characters, but rewrite the dialog to pull the play into the present. All of that makes dramaturgical sense to me. But there is a point at which the “over-writing” becomes just “writing,” where the new work leaves so much of the old behind that it loses everything that appears central to the original. (I’m frankly baffled how many of the reviews here make it sound as if this is basically an updated version of Three Sisters: Martina Kaden in the Berliner Zeitung isn’t alone in claiming that “everything is there — but it’s all new nonetheless.” A funny definition of “everything,” that.)

Chekhov’s sisters live in their house. Like so many of his characters, they are stuck there — they desperately want to be elsewhere (“Moscow!”), but they can never leave, at least not on their own terms: in a way, the place has to vanish before they can depart from it. Stone changes that basic setting: what he gives us instead is a holiday cottage, realized in minute detail as a late modernist chalet by Lizzie Clachan. A rectangular structure of wood and glass, rotating centre stage, it looks like it was airlifted straight from an Alpine slope, a marvel of naturalism that wouldn’t look out of place on the Lyttelton stage, filled with everyday objects, a fully functional kitchen, a flatscreen TV and a PlayStation, a working shower. But no-one is stuck there. All the characters descend on the place from wherever it is they live — somewhere in Switzerland, as Nikolai seems to indicate, though Irina either wants to or manages to move to Berlin, and Masha (as I mentioned) has her eyes on an apartment in Brooklyn. They arrive there for special occasions: to scatter their father’s ashes (which they never do); to celebrate Christmas (when they find Andrey and Natasha living in the house); to empty the place of all its contents to hand it over to its new owners (Stone’s version is a three-act play — so much for “original structure”).

All of that is just fine, as the plot for some play. But it’s emphatically unlike Chekhov’s logic of place. It completely changes the meaning of the house. A holiday home may be a site of nostalgia, but it’s not the centre of anyone’s life. The point of the house in The Three Sisters is that it is in a place where no-one really wants to live, but it is a place to live; Natasha’s gradual encroaching on the space makes it less and less inhabitable — but the sisters also have nowhere else to go. Masha lives with a husband she doesn’t love, but seems to spend as much time as she possibly can at the family home; Olga ends up living in the school where she works. Irina, with Tuzenbach dead, literally has nowhere to go. And wherever they might go if they do leave the actual house, they cannot leave the socially and intellectually dead town in which they are stuck. That claustrophobia, the sense of a home that is no home, but is also without alternative, is of the essence in this play. Take that away, and you simply have a new play about a family and their circle of friends.

And that circle of friends is also dramatically reconfigured. In Chekhov’s original, none of them are there of their own volition: everyone outside the family home is stationed in the town. Tuzenbach resigns his commission, but none of the other characters are free to stay or go — and when they are commanded to move to the regiment’s new base, they all follow. So, sure, some characters leave and some stay, but none of those movements are an expression of personal freedom. More than in The Seagull, more than in The Cherry Orchard, even more than in Uncle Vanya, this inability to choose where one might want to live is totally central in The Three Sisters. And it is totally absent from Simon Stone’s version, where people flit all over the place all the time, constrained by little except their substance abuse or lack of willpower. Or the cruelty of women.

But if this isn’t a version of Chekhov’s play in any serious sense; if it’s just a new play with some superficial similarities to an older text, then where does its interest lie? The staging is conventional in its naturalism, if for that very reason perhaps unusual on a German stage. The dialogues are fast, but largely banal. The acting, for the first two acts, sits in a naturalist register that actors in English have much greater facility with than German actors; as a consequence, it feels by turns stilted and deliberately restrained. The third act is a relief in that regard: finally, the actors are allowed to let rip emotionally and physically, and they come alive in these moments in a way that they rarely did before the interval. Until then, the choreography of movements through the five rooms of the house is impressive and interesting enough to watch, but the performances feel calibrated for a camera lens (and, as the production was filmed and broadcast last night, I can confirm that even from my third-row seat I missed a lot of expressive detail that is evident on screen). The pace is relentless, but not in a Pollesch sort of way: everyone is talking or singing or doing stuff all the time, there’s a ton of overlapping dialogue, but it all proceeds at the pace of life, like an unedited couple of hours in a Big Brother house inhabited by unusually articulate people who nevertheless don’t have a lot to say. (I didn’t name-drop Rene Pollesch at random there: the banality of the dialogue did remind me of Pollesch at times — except that Stone’s script entirely lacks Pollesch’s knack for turning inherently banal statements into something strangely profound through repetitive loops, through the elevation of everyday language into highly artificial cascades of words. Here, it’s just a bunch of moneyed hipsters mouthing off.)

Formally, this is a remarkably uninteresting piece of theatre, and weakest when it’s at its most untheatrical. I said at the outset that it was the deliberate theatricality of Yerma that countered the relative banality of that show’s script. The same is certainly true of Stone’s John Gabriel Borkmann, invited to the Theatertreffen last year. But here, the literalism of the staging exactly mirrors the literalism of the text. Without theatrical or textual interest, there’s little to get exited about; I was reminded of Stone’s filmic version of his Wild Duck, The Daughter, which left me cold for the very same reason: an exercise in film naturalism with little textual appeal, it stripped all that is theatrically interesting from Ibsen’s play and added nothing remarkable in return. In the third act, The Three Sisters becomes more compelling, as the house is emptied of possessions and as the actors get to show how strong a group of performers they are in this increasingly empty space. Theatrically compelling, I should say. Because politically, the show keeps barrelling on down its sexist path in that third act, giving voice, liberally, to men ruined by, miserably dependent on, pathetically enthralled with destructive and self-destructive women. Why anyone thinks that’s a worthwhile take on contemporary life to showcase on the Theatertreffen stage is quite beyond me.

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