John Byrne hates exposition. In his own writing in now classic works
such as The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, his characters talk in baroque
flourishes of pop cultural patois that ricochet between them. In his
new version of Chekhov play, Three Sisters, however, which opens next
week at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow before embarking on a national
tour, tackling such rich but exposition-laden source material hasn't
“I love Chekhov,” Byrne says over a Cappuccino in Edinburgh's Filmhouse
cafe, “but you can only capture about a third of it, because it's
Russian. I thought The Seagull particularly was all exposition, all
that 'I dress in black because of my father's death' sort of thing,
which we're so unused to, characters describing themselves and saying
what's happening to them. So I wouldn't normally like that, but all
life is in Chekhov's plays.
“I chose an old literal translation of Three Sisters by some woman I
didnae know at all. It wasnae a version. It was just a straightforward
translation into English, so it was very dull, with all the characters
talking about themselves and describing their feelings and whatever
else right at the start. We cannae sit through that, because we're not
“You hope to capture something of the atmosphere of Chekhov when you do
a version of it, but you cannae really hope to get it all. You'd be
better watching a Russian company, even though you couldnae understand
every word, or any word, but you'd get the whole tone of the thing.
It's not just a play. The whole of Russia from that period is there,
which he captured so wonderfully well.
“Chekhov's characters expose the facts that they're in love with
people. Life, love and death, and relationships with their vast
country, that's what his plays are about. It's geographical in that way
as well, because normally if you're away from the centre, you're away
from everything, and we don't have those vast spaces at all. We're a
tiny country. Although we've got space in Scotland, it's no' vast
tracks of land that you'd have to trek across for years to get
somewhere else. So there had to be a lot of cutting, otherwise people
would just fall asleep. People have to be entertained as well.”
In Byrne's Three Sisters, rather than yearning for Moscow in turn of
the century rural Russia, the siblings are living beside Dunoon naval
base in the 1960s just as their much longed for London has started to
“They're desperate to get back there and get back to all the things
they're missing,” says Byrne. “I set it in Dunoon because I recently
went back to there for the first time in forty years, and U.S. troops
had been there at the submarine base, which was very helpful. In the
play the father is a London guy who's been posted there as a Commodore
of a whole fleet of sub-marines.”
Three Sisters is Byrne's third Chekhov adaptation to be produced
following his versions of The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, with the
latter rewritten as Uncle Varick. Byrne has also penned a new take on
The Seagull which has yet to find a home. Despite staying faithful to
the originals,each one is pulsed with Byrne's unique linguistic stamp.
“They're written in my version of English,” Byrne says, “which is very
artificial, very invented, lyrical and ornamental. If you see a
Chekhov just translated into ordinary English it can be pretty dull,
but I love the artifice of all these invented phrases that hide things.”
Beyond Three Sisters, in October the Tron and the Glasgay! festival
will present a revival of Colquhoun & MacBryde, Byrne's 1992 play
about Scottish artists, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Looking
further ahead, in February 2015 the Citizens Theatre will be mounting a
major revival of The Slab Boys. This production will see Byrne reunited
with David Hayman, the Citz stalwart who directed the very first
production of the play at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1978.
There is also an un-named fourth project on the go, which, in a rare
moment of discretion, Byrne can't talk about yet.
In the meantime, Three Sisters will feature a trio of red-haired
actresses playing the title roles. With the elder sisters played by
Muireann Kelly and Sally Reid, the youngest will see Jessica Hardwick,
step up for her first major stage role since appearing in the Citizens
productions of Crime and Punishment and Miss Julie. It was Hardwick's
appearance in those shows that led to her winning the inaugural Billy
award. The award was founded by Byrne to highlight the achievements of
young performers, and named in honour of the late Billy McColl, who
blazed a trail playing Phil McCann in Hayman's original production of
The Slab Boys.
“Billy was a wonderful actor,” says Byrne, “and Jessica's wonderful as
well. All the cast are.”
For all his reimaginings of Chekhov, Byrne has discovered a common
thread running through them all.
“That we're all the same,” he says. “We're all human beings, and we all
have the same emotions. We don't have any smaller emotions in Scotland
than people do in Russia. It's been tricky transposing the play to a
smaller place, because it becomes a different creature, but the
emotions that people have are still the same wherever you set it.”
Three Sisters, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 1-18; Colquhoun &
MacBryde, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 29-November 8; The Slab Boys,
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 12-March 7 2015.
The Three Sisters
Anton Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters in 1900, inspired in part by the
three Bronte sisters, and the play was first produced in 1901 at the
Moscow Art Theatre. It was directed by Constantin Stanislavsky, who
also played Vershinin.
In 1936, John Gielgud directed an English translation of the play in a
production that featured Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave in the
In 1970, a film version of the play featured Alan Bates, Joan
Plowright, Ronald Pickup and Laurence Olivier, who co-directed.
In 1990, a production at the Gate Theatre in Dublin featured real-life
sisters, Sinead, Sorcha and Niamh Cusack in the title roles, with their
father Cyril Cusack also in the cast.
A year later, a London production saw Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave appear
onstage together for the first and only time, while their niece Jemma
Redgrave played the youngest sister, Irina.
In 2011, Blake Morrison wrote a version of the play for the Northern
Broadsides company which brought out the parallels with the Brontes.
The Herald, September 23rd 2014