Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


“Just get rid of them all!” -  RashDash take on Anton Chekov

We philosophised our heads off with Becky Wilkie, one third of feminist collective RashDash.

Radical, fun and feminist AF, all female theatre company RashDash are taking on the patriarchy and one straight white man in particular: Anton Chekov. Considered on of the great classic writers of drawing room drama, Chekov’s famous 1900 play The Three Sisters is currently getting the RashDash treatment at the Yard Theatre. London Calling ‘philosophised’ with performer Becky Wilkie.

London Calling: Let’s start with a confession: I’ve never seen or read a Chekov play! So yesterday I sat down and started reading The Three Sisters and it made me kind of angry…
Becky Wilkie: We originally thought we would take The Three Sisters, not even read it and do whatever we want. But then it got a bit more complicated and we actually started to move towards the play more to see what we liked and didn’t like. But when we read it, yes, it is female characters written by a man. They are very passive and self indulgent and it feels like the male characters get to say things and make wise statements about how the world is, whereas the women almost exclusively circle around themselves.
LC: I highlighted one line: “When a man talks philosophy, it is philosophy or at any rate sophistry; but when women talk philosophy — it's all nonsense.”
BW: That quote differs slightly in different translations, but with the same sentiment. We actually use that quote at the beginning of our show.
LC: I wonder if, like Ibsen, Chekov wrote phrases like that with a sort of compassion, to highlight how women are limited by society – but it doesn’t feel that way.
BW: Chekov certainly doesn’t give a lot of credit to his female characters. One thing that struck me in The Three Sisters is how mean they are.

 RashDash - Three Sisters. Photo: The Other Richard

LC: This is the first time you’ve adapted a classic. What interested you about that, what were you trying to find out?
BW: A few artistic directors or people in bigger buildings have said to us that if we wanted to make the jump to bigger venues and having more resources and money, we would probably have to put on a classic. We make original work that no one has ever heard of, so people would normally have to come along at a bit of a risk. Whereas if we did something with a big name associated to it, we are more programmable. These were the kind of conversations we were having with venues.  So we took that as a provocation. Can we do that? Is it something we are interested in? But we can’t really make a show that isn’t us. We went towards the text looking for things that we found interesting or provocative, any lines from any of the characters, and took them out and reworked and used them for the show.
What Chekov writes in his plays is often held up as universal truths of ‘this is how people are’ when obviously, it is just the way one man has written how some people are.  We were interested in taking the space the way he does, and in using that register. The characters always declare things, none of them listen to each other, they always just say things they are thinking or feeling. So we have taken that way of talking and used that style, but say things that we want to say today. Which to some people might sound quite trivial, the same way that the three sisters are trivial.

 RashDash - Three Sisters. Photo: The Other Richard

LC: What did you do with all the male characters?
BW: They don’t exist.  We have taken some of the things the male characters say and, as the three sisters in our version, we may say those things. But we were interested in a show that doesn’t have any male characters. The Three Sisters was a play recommended to us because it has three female parts but, as you probably realised, they don’t necessarily hold all the space in the play. A lot of the dialogue is men talking in the drawing room, and all the action told is based around what the men are doing, so we were interested in just getting rid of them all.
LC: The sisters are stuck in the country dreaming of returning to Moscow. They are almost in a prison they talk about leaving but never do.
BW: In our version we reversed this. Instead of wanting to go to the big city, we have them wanting to get out of the city because prices are rising and it’s just so crowded, so we flipped it to again make it more relevant to us today.
LC: After engaging with the play and dissecting it and analysing it in that way, do you still think it’s a classic?
BW: It’s a classic because people keep putting it on. Whether it’s good or not is a different discussion. But this is what we are questioning: Why do all the plays that get shown again and again come from a very limited pool of voices? They may well be great but there are so many other voices that are not being heard, anybody who is not a white educated man, who is not Shakespeare, Chekov or Brecht. So what we are saying with out version is, if you keep playing the classics over and over again you need to get new voices in as well. Otherwise the world is not going to change, if we insist this story is important and all other stories are not. Our show is really questioning, why are we doing the classics and who are they for?

 RashDash - Three Sisters. Photo: The Other Richard

LC: Not only are the classics written by men, they will be most likely be directed by men and then probably reviewed by men in the end.
BW: We have a whole section in the show where we rap reviews of The Three Sisters. Michael Billington from the Guardian has done something like 14 reviews of The Three Sisters over the years so we have taken a lot of his words. And the way these reviews are written, the women are talked about in terms of what they look like and the men are talked about like genius directors who have copied other genius directors to do this genius man’s work. When you start putting them all together, you really get the sense of self-congratulating continuity of the same. The whole system, from the writing to putting on shows to reviewing, is all contained within our questioning with this show we made.
LC: What can we expect from the show?
BW: Our shows work best if you don’t know what to expect.  We’ve been at the Royal Exchange in Manchester for the last few weeks, and in the main space they had The Cherry Orchard on in a very traditional, true to the original, version and we were in the studio as a counterpoint to this. Some people were going to see both and were coming to our show expecting to see a true to form Three Sisters. It’s very much not that. There is live music, movement, we talk about ourselves, it’s not drawing room drama in the way that some people might think. ‘What are you expecting?’ is a line that we ask people before they see the show, so we don’t want to give too much away!
The Three Sisters by RashDash, after Chekov is at the Yard Theatre until 9 June.