PRINT November 1989


Reinterpreting Chekhov

IN EVERY GREAT THEATRICAL TEXT there are internal tendencies, subterranean movements that illuminate its fate for future epochs and different cultures. In fact, every work is subject to periods of dormancy that alternate with moments of brilliant renewal, during which, thanks to a latent vitality that remains unchanged, there occurs, between the text and those who re-read it, a movement of asynchronic recognition.

This recently happened in Europe with Three Sisters, one of Chekhov’s most famous texts, one that this century’s theatrical tradition had rigidified into melodramatic stilemes, a melancholy portrait of a doomed epoch and way of life. It is an intimate domestic drama, but also a drama of history, private and marginal, yet perfectly in harmony with the spirit of its time. This pivotal text can communicate the regret for what is no longer and what will be no longer, as well as expressing anticipation for a new and better world along with the impotence to create it, to act as protagonists in it, even to accept it.

Thus in some way Three Sisters inevitably falls into a naturalistic interpretation; indeed, the drama of the protagonists is also the social and political history that will come to pass in Russia and in Europe during the first two decades of the 20th century. And the Prosorov house is a microcosm of this future world, which will either emerge from a homologizing, brutal negation of the old (Natalya), or will not emerge at all, suffocated from the start by a defect of will or of imagination (the three sisters).

Among those who have recently reinterpreted Chekhov, some, like Peter Stein (for the Berlin Schaubühne and for the Festival d’Automne, Paris, 1988) have chosen the canonical route of a naturalism that leaves nothing to the imagination and that focuses entirely on historical and environmental reconstruction. Playing with a pictorial, analytic, panoramic staging, mindful of every detail of stage design, costumes, scenery (from the first ad’s glorious diffused solar light that floods the large Progorov drawing room, the ample windows of which face onto the garden, to the disquieting luminist domestic interior of the second ad, barely revealed by the dim light of a few smoky candles), Stein focuses on those elements that make Chekhovian characters the symbols of a historical and class conflict. These characters move through increasingly reduced and degraded spaces, in which Stein scrutinizes them much like the scientist examining cells under a microscope. Against a background made precious by period pieces of furniture, refined china, bunches of fresh flowers, and candles that, once spent, leave the penetrating odor of wax wafting through the air, true tears of emotion, regret, melancholy, and frustration flow. And the smoke of Masha’s cigarette, the song of the birds in the garden, the sound of the pendulum, or the whistling of the wind, fill the stage as if in respectful, loving homage to Stanislaysky.

Last spring, Luca Ronconi chose a diametrically opposed direction, with respect to both the director’s past and the traditional interpretation of Chekhovian drama. For 25 years, Ronconi has been associated with grandiosity, with high costs, with the most rash and ambitious theatrical engineering, with the use of baroque, superabundant, complex machinery, with stagings of the marvelous and the artificial, often pushing the limits of the impossible, the special effect, on the theater stage. This is true for his now historic 1969 production of Orlando Furioso, and for his more recent Ignorabimus, staged in 1986.

In contrast, Three Sisters emerges as an exception to Ronconi’s usual directorial approach. It was conceived as a povero or pared-down production,realized with modest means and with a limited budget, and, most important, without resorting to spectacular decor or to pyrotechnic stage tricks. Instead, we see a humble and opaque domestic interior, dimly illuminated, dirty, crowded with pieces of furniture that are more secondhand than antique, put together almost by chance. It is a bric-à-brac that projects confusion and inadequacy, delusion and impotence: the typical repertory of the petit-bourgeois. Positioned on invisible tracks, the furniture is transformed into frames, perimeters, curtains, psychological containers, functioning both as elements of the dramatic writing and as narrative signifiers. Immersed in this swarming yet destitute landscape, the characters hysterically play out a script of which the plot has survived, but not the meaning.

The extraordinary novelty of Ronconi’s ideas as a director lie precisely in the preservation, with almost obsessive philological punctiliousness, of the minutest elements of the original text. But he then overturns meanings and suggests an interpretation that, having eliminated all naturalistic temptation, avoids the risk of sentimentalism and intimacy and openly declares itself an aggressive, provocative, hypermodern rewriting.

In Chekhov, the prevailing register is one of modest sentiment, of melancholy, of nostalgia, of regret, of a declared incapacity to live in the present or to know how to connect past and future, memory and intention. In Ronconi’s staging, this impossibility, literally interpreted but pushed to extremes, is transformed into a transgression of the boundary between subjective perception and historical reality, in a negation of linear time in which delirium becomes the form of communication.

Prisoners (and not only metaphorically) in a small garrison buried in the Russian provinces during the late 19th century, and light-years away from the luxury and presumed vivacity of a fantasized Moscow, Chekhov’s three sisters deceive time and above all themselves, in indolent, languid ruminations where memories and dreams seem to mingle together, postulating the negation of the here and now as the only form of life possible. The true protagonist of the Chekhov play is the incapacity to coincide with the time in which one finds oneself, and to subject oneself to that continual, extremely painful exchange between a “before” that can never be repeated and an “after” that must be planned. But Ronconi’s unsentimental interpretation is not forced; he chooses to move away from the descriptive/naturalistic dimension, plunging into another dimension where recollection is replaced by subjective memory or by illusion, and the planning process is replaced by dreams or by hallucination. Immersed in a universe of small, banal everydayness, the Chekhovian sisters float in a time that doesn’t pertain to history, each of them lost behind a longing, a lack, or an illusion that cancels out every appearance of reality.

The form of their discourse, their “philosophizing,” reproduces itself over and over. Even the repeated invocation “to Moscow, to Moscow,” more than expressing a desire and a will to transformation, confirms that the true vocation of the characters is completely internal to the enunciative system, where the act of saying replaces and empties out the necessity for doing. The three sisters neither remember nor plan: immobile, congealed, they stay suspended in that dead, forgetful zone of delirium and impotence, without entrances or exits.

Having brought together this thematic core and placed it at the center of his direction, Ronconi, with coherence and subtle pertinence, has broken through the narrow and no longer necessary barrier of verisimilitude. In the same vein, he has given the Chekhovian sisters, in their 20s, the faces, the bodies, the voices of three mature actresses (Marisa Fabbri as Olga, Franca Nuti as Masha, Annamaria Guarnieri as Irina). He plays with tricks of aging (hyperbolic teased wigs, humble and shapeless dresses, always the same, despite the apparent passage of time and changing of seasons), using them to eliminate every residual semblance of reality. This asynchrony is not only not masked, but it becomes the supporting axis, the unequivocal demonstration of a refusal to enter into the time of History and its impossible objectivity. The Ronconian stage—evocative, antinaturalistic, improbable—negates all pretext to credibility, crowded with photographs that anticipate events and that, at the outset, therefore contradict all potential for evolution. Absorbed in an allusive dimension, the action is developed through contiguity, in a chain of free associations, through fluctuations, temporal gaps, slidings, passages that have the suddenness and apparent implausibility of oneiric activity. It is as if, once the story has been infused with the dimension of memory, the action can no longer move in the direction of change. Everything has already occurred. History is congealed in the past. There is no present (symbolically imprisoned by a sepia color photograph that the actors on stage cannot help but echo in their positions and stances), marked by an in- effectual backward glance. Evoked by memory, by regret, or perhaps only by the illusion of the sisters, the characters that are part (were part?) of their life appear on stage as if emerging from a foggy and uncertain darkness. They are flesh-and-blood people, they speak in the present, but only about a past that has left no trace or about a future that will never be realized. Their arrival could be a tired, sad replay; but it could also be a projection or a play of the imagination. Or perhaps, why not, also a story in real time. And there would be no difference.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.