Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre, Glasgow Four stars
WATCHING John Byrne’s new adaptation of the Chekhov classic, it’s hard to put aside the memory of Alasdair Gray’s notorious “colonisers and settlers” essay. This was the pre-referendum broadside in which the novelist used the loaded language of imperial Britain to describe incomers to Scotland. As Gray saw it, there were those who used the country as a stepping stone for a career elsewhere and those who stayed to make a lasting contribution.
Seen in these terms, Byrne’s three sisters, renamed Olive, Maddy and Renee Penhalligan, plus brother Archie, are instinctive colonisers. They’re an upper-class English military family at the start of the 1960s, shored up in small-town Dunoon because of its proximity to the Holy Loch submarine base, but wishing all the while to be in London. Circumstance, however, makes them settlers. They may dream of the big city, they may be bored by provincial life, they may quote Rupert Brooke’s line about “some corner of a foreign field” being “for ever England”, but, whether as teacher or as district councillor, they are slowly becoming rooted.
If anything, it’s the locals who are most damaged by the dysfunctional relationship. Somewhere off stage, an officer’s wife is making suicide attempts, while Louise McCarthy as Archie’s new wife Natasha replicates the class power structure as she goes from Wemyss Bay innocent to tyrannical lady of the manor. With Byrne’s characteristic wit, she takes on a strangulated hybrid Anglo-Scots accent as she does so.
Elsewhere, the Anglophone setting minimises the opportunity for Byrne’s most baroque language, but director Andy Arnold does the adaptation tremendous justice in a beautifully controlled staging that’s loaded with fine performances. With their radiant red ringlets and sliding scale of accents, Muireann Kelly, Sally Reid and Jessica Hardwick make a compelling central trio, all dry wit and tough sisterly honesty, resignedly tolerating Jonathan Watson’s touchingly ineffectual Archie.