Apr 2008 Journal

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Hopelessness beats eternal ... (theatre review)

This attempt to transpose Chekhov’s subtle and pessimistic Three Sisters from a Russian garrison town to post-war Liverpool in the days of incipient Jewish statehood is a brave but awkward one. Following the success of Kindertransport, we have come to expect dramatic courage from Samuels but, while writers often reinterpret old classics, the issues here are different. Chekhov’s Prozorov sisters - Olga, Masha, Irina - yearn for Moscow in a Russia of deep political change. Hope Street’s Lasky siblings - Gertie, May, Rita - are less rooted in their society. Far-flung from their native New York to Liverpool after their mother’s death, they have no psychic link with such national identity.

Israel, too, is unknown, unfelt – the girls only resemble the Prozorovs in their fragility. Does it matter? Only that it poses unnecessary strain on the structure of the play, which sticks rigidly to the Russian format, while it might have flowed more explorative without it.

Hope Street is home to the Lasky sisters and their brother Arnold, who, like Chekhov’s Andrei, had academic hopes pinned on him by his father, but his marriage to the simpering butcher’s daughter Debbie has reduced them to nostalgia. Debbie, an obsessive mother to his two children, attempts to push the sisters out of their home.

This is postwar-austerity provincial Britain: 1947 with ration books and the birth of the NHS - and for Jews with the Holocaust still aching, personal insecurity looms large. Into this ‘temporary’ homeland enter three American officers with dreams of their own. Idealistic Tush (Russell Bentley) wants to whisk youngest sister Rita (Samantha Robinson) off to Palestine; the passionate middle sister May (Suzan Sylvester) falls for the more sanguine First Sergeant Vince (Finbar Lynch) (but he has an annoying wife somewhere); and the sour GI Solly (Gerard Monaco) equally hankers after Rita, on whose loveliness all the family dote.

Throw into this mix local riots at the Irgun’s hanging of two British soldiers and young proto-Zionists singing in the street, and you wonder where there’s time for personal ambition, let alone lament. I had difficulty caring what any of the characters had to say. The ‘saintly’ eldest ‘sister, Gertie, is portrayed too weakly by Anna Francolini to exert that elder-sister responsibility which might have added depth to the plot and there is little meaningful dialogue to build the tension. So that even tragedy appears as just another inconvenience whittled down by the girls’ self-absorbed dreaming.

The writers’ attempt to deal with the breadth of their material tends to diffuse the drama. However, this is an interesting historical period, with Revisionists pitted against mainstream Zionists in the grip of emergent nationhood, and the writers do not flinch from conveying the controversy.

What works in this play is the Chekhovian sense of nostalgia and weariness, expressed poignantly by Nate Weinberger, ageing gynaecologist and back-street abortionist, who lodges rent-free with the Laskys and whose commentary on the times is a leitmotif for static pessimism. This role builds successfully in the hands of Philip Voss, as does Daisy Lewis’s Debbie, whose cooing over her babies belies a heart as stony as the missiles hurled by the Brownshirt mob at their windows. Jennie Stoller’s Auntie Beil, long-suffering grandmother-figure, gives the Jewish theme its shtetl roots, while the bitter-sweet flavour is enhanced by a smattering of Yiddish, plus Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Thematically, this ambitious play does not need Chekhov, but it does need to care more for its characters.


Gloria Tessler

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