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Posted on September 07, 2012 / by Ana / in Theatre

A radical version of Chekhov’s classic of family ennui premieres tonight. Alice Jones meets the actresses following in famous footsteps

Traditionalists should look away now. Or at least have the smelling salts to hand. Tonight a radical new version of Three Sisters opens at the Young Vic in London, with three rapidly rising stars – Mariah Gale, Vanessa Kirby and Gala Gordon – in the lead roles. The director is Benedict Andrews, celebrated wild child of the Sydney theatre scene, now making a name for himself over here with his ultra-modern, iconoclastic productions. In the last year he has put Cate Blanchett in a tutu and had her pirouette across the Barbican’s stage in Gross und Klein, retooled Caligula as a gold-Kalashnikov-toting cross between Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi at the ENO, and given Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses the Tarantino treatment at the Young Vic.

The last time he tackled Chekhov – The Seagull at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney last summer – he set the action in a shack on Bondi Beach and had the characters call each other “mate”. So it’s safe to assume that his Three Sisters will not be a museum piece. A trailer online which shows the three sisters dressed to kill in designer ball-gowns, sloshing vodka into each other’s mouths, pawing at cake, and whirling around like blissed-out ravers, suggests a more sophisticated name-day party for Irina than the traditional samovar and spinning top. And then there’s Andrews’s script, which has Masha bemoaning her “mindless fucking boredom,” replaces lines from Pushkin’s “Ruslan and Ludmila” with Bowie’s “Golden Years” and peppers speeches with references to the telly and Leonard Cohen lyrics.

“I expect it will be met by a certain degree of consternation. Or even anger,” says Gale, who plays the oldest sister, Olga. “But why not take a risk? Why not do a Marmite production that you might love or hate?” chips in Gordon, aka little sister Irina. “Yes. Why do you want to watch people going round in corsets, [then] leave at the end of the evening thinking: ‘What a story. They were sad, weren’t they?’” asks Vanessa Kirby, middle sister Masha. So they won’t be wearing corsets? “No!”

Aside from Andrews’s bold staging, this feisty threesome is the main reason to get excited by the latest Chekhov revival. It’s not a casting coup along the lines of the Cusack siblings or the Redgrave relatives (see box), but it’s an exciting prospect nonetheless. Kirby, 24, was last seen on stage in The Acid Test at the Royal Court but is known to most from her television roles, including a brief but memorable debut as the murdered debutante in The Hour and as Estella in the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, opposite Douglas Booth (who subsequently became her boyfriend).

Today, tumbling out of the rehearsal room on their lunch break, all barefoot, with long hair messily piled up, they don’t look particularly alike but you can see exactly why Andrews cast them. Gordon, half South American, is the dark-eyed, sincere one, Kirby the blonde, feline one, prone to wild outbursts, Gale the regally still one – pale, thoughtful and softly spoken. “Benedict said he looked for the essence of the character in whoever walked through the door,” she says. “And I think he got it really well.”

“Gemma Arterton came out of the room before my audition and I thought, ‘there is no way in hell I’m getting this role,’” gossips Kirby, through a mouthful of sushi. “I honestly thought I did a terrible audition.” And yet here they are, finishing each other’s sentences and calling each other affectionate nicknames (Minnie, Nu and Geegee, in case you were wondering).

All three are making their Chekhov debuts but this is not their first encounter with the playwright. It was seeing Vanessa and Corin Redgrave in The Cherry Orchard at the National in 2000 that inspired Kirby to become an actress. “My parents would always take me to the theatre and I was bored a lot of the time. Loads of Shakespeare, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. And then, when I was 13, we went to see The Cherry Orchard and it changed everything for me. I saw this brother and sister being so real. I was so moved by it and I didn’t know why.”

“Wherever you are in the world, whoever you are with, sometimes you feel desperately lonely,” says Kirby. “These girls have each other, it’s not solitary confinement. But their minds have been left to fester.”

Masha, the play’s most interesting character – a bleak, often comically outspoken soul who embarks on an ill-fated affair with the visiting Colonel Vershinin – was written for Knipper. “Oh what a role there is for you in Three Sisters!” Chekhov told her in a letter. “What a role! If you give me 10 roubles, you can have it, otherwise I will give it to another actress.”

“His understanding of the characters comes from Olga,” says Kirby. “She tells him everything in her daily letters. Every day he gets these bursts of feelings. A lot of that is channelled into these women.”

So where does one look for the next rich female part? “I want to play Hedda,” says Kirby. “Even if I have do it in the Scottish Hebrides, on my own, with only a gardener watching.” It seems unlikely, given that Hollywood has already come calling. She has just finished filming Richard Curtis’s About Time and Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Kate Mosse’s bestseller Labyrinth.

‘Three Sisters’, Young Vic, London (020 7922 2922; to 13 Oct


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