It's Ibsen vs Chekhov south of the river in traditional vs modern productions. The Old Vic's version of Hedda Gabler is rooted in the plays origins while the Young Vic has taken one look at that and said 'nah' not this time.
For a start a thrust stage is made from square tables all painted grey which protrude from a mound of earth at the back of the stage. When we are introduced to the three sisters they are all dressed to reflect their personalities rather than the period.
Olga (Mariah Gale) is sat at one of the stage/tables marking school work, dressed conservatively 1940's style. Masha (Vanessa Kirby) is draped on a chair in an elegant, backless 1920's dress languorously smoking and not saying very much. And the youngest, Irina (Gala Gordon), is all excited energy in a frou-frou white dress. It's the day of her 18th birthday and her life is before her.
Their language has been modernised - the play doesn't shy from expletives - and as they talk the stage is continually active with preparation for a luncheon. Friends of the family pop by - Chetbutykin (Michael Feast) a doctor who can't remember anything he learnt at medical school, Baron Tuzenbach (Sam Troughton) who fancies Irina, Masha's husband Kulygin (Adrian Schiller) a dull and hardworking teacher together with various associates from the army encamped in the town all dressed in combat fatigue.
Some arrive walking over the mound of mud, others just climb up onto the stage having entered through the audience. There is little of the formality you'd expect of the period. This is a very much a relaxed affair with snatches of modern tunes including a cast singalong to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.
However not all goes quite to plan - this is Chekhov after all. For all the activity going on on stage and all their intentions the sisters lives seem to stand pretty still. Andrey marries a woman they all think is ridiculous and who is soon ruling the household, he ends up working in the sort of job he always dismissed as provincial.
Olga just plods along at her teaching job getting promotions she never sought, Masha falls in love with an army office as a form of escape from her husband and Irina is just hanging on for Moscow, declining suitors - including the threatening Solyony (Paul Rattray) - and working all the hours she can in jobs she grows to hate.
As their vision of the life they want to lead begins to crumble so does the 'set'. After the interval the stage of tables is in dissarray, a fire rages in the town, and Andrey has re-mortgaged to pay gambling debts. As the story winds towards its conclusion the stage is removed one table at a time until just the mound of earth is left.
This bold and unconventional staging is not going to resonate with everyone. Indeed among the four of us who saw it together there were verdicts of 'loved', 'liked' and two 'hated'. I was the 'liked' because it is refreshing to see an unconventional approach. It is well acted and I was engaged for the most part. However, the story feels like mere broad brush strokes against the staging and theatrical devices and it was difficult to get to the heart of the story.
There is always a danger in avant garde productions that it can feel like 'because we can' rather than for genuine effect and this sailed dangerously close at times but overall I liked it and it's just about getting four stars from me.
For an alternative view head over to @polyg's blog.
Adrian Schiller was in Richard II with Mr W.