Royal Exchange, Manchester.
8 & 14 May 2018.
Up go the lights. Five women doing their own thing. Dancing with a lampshade on their head, stroking a toy dog, playing the piano, conducting an imaginary orchestra or transfixed by a spinning chandelier. We’re not in Kansas anymore, but then neither are we in an unnamed provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century.
RashDash set out their stall sharpish. Advised that to develop and grow as a company, they should engage with the classics, they question the validity of that route and its implications. Do they really want to produce more of the same – men’s words and men’s voices? Why is it men who make the speeches? “Why do you always say all the lines?”. “Why are we always telling your stories?”.
They defiantly reset the parameters and twist perspectives. Now, in a city somewhere, Olga, Masha and Irina still lounge, worry and exchange pleasantries. Bored and unhappy, they long to escape to the countryside. Distractedly, they worry about the rent, how to do the right thing, what to do with unwanted presents? These Three Sisters bristle. Conversations are often at cross purposes, opinions are ignored and eyes are rolled. Crying in Morrison’s, stricken by FOMO, life drags on with little to look forward to. “Everything will be better when my period comes”. More real perhaps than Chekhov’s women, they are still unfulfilled and incomplete.
These three sisters though are shape-shifters, and even skirt-lifters. Whether engaged in playfully exposing each others’ knickers, or helping to button up something structured and formal, they share a pleasure in dressing up and costume, in exploring and becoming. Spice Girls outfits, chain mail headpieces and bear onesies come and go. On stage, a pile of discarded clothes grows ever higher as one guise after another is worn and then shed. When they emerge triumphantly from beneath a weighty stack of classic plays, they are cheerleaders performing a celebratory dance. Give me a C…
Cee Haitch Eee Kay Haitch Oh Vee.
He is present. Well his head is. Not a solid bust, but something less substantial – an alabaster-white bespectacled mask. As if anticipating comments about how THE man would be in a spin at what they’ve done, he already is – slowly rotating on a small table to the side. He has been reduced, like so many women before, to mere ornament.
And yet. Yes RashDash glower at the classics and rage against the European repertoire but they don’t totally disengage from The Three Sisters. They try bits on for size, and adjust as necessary. So there are four acts, and echos of that Russian town in this city. Smoke billows from a building on fire, a spinning top spins and the soldiers leave. And we know time is passing because ‘TICK TOCK TICKTOCK’ scrolls away silently across a digital screen. There’s a Chekhovian rhythm to the dialogue, and words have been plundered (or poached) from both his male and female characters for repurposing.
Refusing to be constrained by convention, spoken word is increasingly sidelined for movement and music. So much more is said through the wonderfully expressive physical sequences and the rich, varied flow of original songs. Reclining upon the period furniture they are without purpose, but within these moments of artistic expression they become complex, questioning and assertive. With passion and anger they dissect the patriarchy, relationships, life and theatre-making. A blistering and breathless sequence near the end shifts attention outwards from the stage to consider the role played by (male) critics in defining how plays should be done, and challenges their authority to set limits on how works can be interpreted. In a production generous with rallying cries, it’s an especially exhilarating one.
This Three Sisters is both a rejection of the period drama drawing-room, and an emancipation from the ennui which often emanates from within. RashDash exhort today’s women to create work so that the future will be beautiful, but there’s also a sense that they are reclaiming a lost history, imagining the spaces within stifling domestic confines where women found artistic release through frolicsome dance, bursts of song, furtive moments alone at the piano or even secretly creating surreal masterpieces on surfaces hidden from the male gaze.
No more “if only we knew, if only we knew“. Know this. RashDash’s Three Sisters is thrilling, inventive and inspiring theatre.
Images by The Other Richard.