“It’s sweat on your brow that gives life meaning,” says one of the supporting characters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and it’s fair to say that, on occasions, there’s a distracting sense of effort being made by some cast members, which is not always comfortable for the audience. Yet one of the strengths of Lung Ha – Scotland’s principal theatre company for performers with learning disabilities – is that they’ve never shied away from taking on challenging work.
A defiant reminder of why Lung Ha’s voice deserves to be heard.
Under Maria Oller’s nuanced, yet bold artistic direction, Lung Ha have tackled Chekhov before, but this large-scale attempt at one of the writer’s most iconic works – in a new version by playwright Adrian Osmond – arguably pushes some of its performers to the edge of their performance abilities. Equally, though, it showcases some true star turns, most notably by the three actors playing the titular sisters: Emma McCaffrey is the solid, reliable core of the show as unmarried schoolteacher Olga; Nicola Tuxworth embodies the frustrations of unhappily married Masha; and Emma Clark gives a nervous energy as youngest sister Irena.
They are certainly given some invaluable support: an energetic Gavin Yule never fails to find some fun in Latin teacher Fyodor, who fails to notice – or, more likely, turns a blind eye to – Masha’s affair with the philosophically-minded Lieutenant-Colonel Veshinin (Paul Harper). Kenneth Ainslie’s painful-looking physicality, meantime, helps give a greater depth to what on paper is a far-from-sympathetic role as the sister’s foolish brother Andrey, whose weakness for gambling and lustful choice of the domineering Natasha (an at times genuinely scary Teri Robb) as his wife, ultimately fractures the sisters’ home and lives together.
As one of the company’s “big” productions, Three Sisters benefits from its cast of 20; Oller again shows her skill in choreographing such a multitude on stage, with the support of movement director Janis Claxton. Designer Karen Tennent, who has worked often with Lung Ha, again produces an environment which is evocative of the late 19th century without being a slave to detail, with sufficient flexibility to represent both interiors and exteriors as required – helped, of course, by Andrew Gannon’s lighting. The live music, by Finnish composer Anna-Karin Korhonen, successfully evokes the melodies and melancholy of Russian folk tunes.
Three Sisters is arguably about people straining against the societal expectations imposed on them, a theme given additional depth by the nature of its cast. Sadly, it’s impossible to ignore the wider context in which this particular production launched — namely Lung Ha’s controversial loss, and subsequent reinstatement, of regular funding from Creative Scotland. If nothing else, the timing ensured Three Sisters necessarily became a defiant reminder of why Lung Ha’s voice deserves to be heard.