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Three Sisters review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘a powerful interrogation of the canon’

Helen Goalen in Three Sisters at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: The Other Richard Helen Goalen in Three Sisters at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: The Other Richard

When RashDash wanted to move up in scale, artistic directors advised the company to tackle a classic. Three Sisters – irreverently exploiting all the latitude granted by the two words “after Chekhov” – is its response. It’s less a take on the play than a music and movement-fuelled examination of why plays like this continue to be staged.

Three Sisters is a departure for RashDash in some senses, but in others it’s a logical extension of the company’s interrogation of narrative forms that are shaped and defined by men.

Here, again, they wrestle with the ways in which we’ve learnt to tell stories. Some of the basic features of Chekhov’s play remain, but the production pushes at its edges and messes with its mechanics, while rapid costume changes suggest countless previous attempts to “refresh” or “radicalise” this classic.

When shrugging on the roles of Masha, Olga and Irina, RashDash incisively skewers the privileged ennui of Chekhov’s characters and the limited horizons the playwright imagined for his female protagonists. This is a precarious tightrope between subversion and replication, and RashDash knows it. Though the performers reproduce tropes of objectification, the performers are quick to undercut these by showing how awkward or ungainly or strong their bodies can also be, refusing the tight restrictions of the male gaze.

Most powerfully, in a musical sequence using newspaper extracts, RashDash attacks reviewers’ worship of the dramatic canon and the policing of who can and can’t get their hands on it. If the classics aren’t for everyone, RashDash asks, then what are they for?

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RashDash offers a chaotic but powerful interrogation of the dramatic canon