Maria Oller was in the midst of rehearsals for her new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters when the news came through that Lung Ha, the learning disabled based theatre company she has been artistic director of since 2009 had lost its main funding from Creative Scotland. Up until then, Lung Ha had been a Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO), which gave the company three-year’s worth of security to plan ahead. For a company as unique as Lung Ha, such security was vital, as it was with any of the theatre companies and arts organisations who had also had the rug pulled from under them.
“The hardest part for me was telling the actors,” says Oller. “We were in the middle of Three Sisters, and they were working so hard, so to let them know that our work isn’t considered to be worth regular funding was difficult.”
The response of Lung Ha’s large ensemble, who had been working on the show for months, was telling.
“They were active straight away,” says Oller. “They pulled together and said we’re going to do the best show ever.”
Following a public outcry, Creative Scotland underwent a humiliating U-turn, reinstating Lung Ha’s RFO status along with four other organisations that had been cut.
“It was a very unsettling couple of weeks,” says Oller. “There was no explanation why we had been cut, and then there was no explanation why we were reinstated. It was very strange. I’ve never known any experience like it.”
Forward-planning matters for Lung Ha more than many theatre companies, and operating on an ad hoc basis and applying for funding project to project isn’t really an option.
“Because we need to work and rehearse so far in advance, we can’t let a cast know that we may do a show in six months’ time, but we may not. We would lose our actors. It’s so unsettling for them not to know. They need a structure in order to be able to plan things with their support teams and their family support.”
Such uncertainty would threaten Lung Ha’s very existence.
“I can’t see how we could continue to be creative at that level,” says Oller. “Lung Ha would go back to what it was before 2005, when it was a drama group. We had discussions with the Scottish Arts Council at the time, and said that if we wanted to go further with the company, we needed to plan long term. They understood that.”
The old Scottish Arts Council seemed to understand as well just how unique Lung Ha are as a company. This isn’t just in Scotland, but in Europe and Scandinavia, where they are regarded as pioneers.
With this in mind, for Three Sisters, Lung Ha have teamed up with the Folk Music Department of the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki, Finland, to co-produce the show. As a Finn herself, Oller recognises some of the similarities between Russian and Finnish folk music, and saw the opportunity or an artistic exchange.
“There isn’t a company like Lung Ha in Finland,” she says, “and the people in the folk music department were really keen.”
To this end, Finnish composer and teacher Anna-Karin Korhonen will perform a live score with three of her students. Instruments used will include a kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument which Oller likens to a form of table harp. Also on board will be Michael Serrie, a young Scottish musician studying in Finland.
“The musicians perform the music, and play characters as well,” says Oller about the extra musical dimension to the show.
The play itself is seen in a new adaptation by Adrian Osmond, the Canadian-born Glasgow-based director and writer, whose work has been seen all over the world. With much of his time of late spent directing opera in Korea, Three Sisters will be Osmond’s first high-profile siting on home turf since he and his SweetScar company presented a production of Sarah Kane’s play, 4:48 Psychosis, at Cumbernauld Theatre.
“It’s always a joy to work with Lung Ha,” says Osmond, who previously penned a version of Antigone for the company, as well as a new piece, The Hold, which was performed in the National Museum of Scotland. “When Maria asked me to do a new adaptation of Three Sisters for the company, I jumped at it. I’ve never had much of a chance to look at Chekhov, and my job here is to be as true to Chekhov as possible, while trying to find the right language for the company.
“I think people can sometimes be a bit fearful of Chekhov, because plays like Three Sisters don’t have a conventional plot, and if you’re not careful, you can find yourself swamped by samovars and dinner tables, and it can all be done quite strait-laced. Even reading it, you can get lost among all these characters, but when you put it on its feet you can see the vibrancy of these people. At first all these characters appear to be eccentric, but the closer you get to them, the more you realise they’re just like us.”
Osmond could easily be talking about the members of the Lung Ha ensemble, who over the years have been asked to tackle other classic plays in an increasingly ambitious programme.
“Length is one of the key issues,” says Osmond. “So much of Three Sisters revolves around time, and you have to hone things down to the stuff that matters. One of the beautiful things about Lung Ha doing it is that the company has this ensemble who’ve known each other for years, sometimes decades, and there are all these different personalities who know each other really well. To have that strong ensemble feeling, but with a set of complete individuals onstage, that’s a gift.”
Osmond’s first-hand observations sum up the power of Lung Ha as a company.
“Fundamentally, for me, whenever I see a Lung Ha show, I laugh and I cry at the same time,” he says. “Some of the most important things that happen onstage are things that the audience may not be aware of. The personal journey some of the individual performers are on in terms of connecting with each other means that there are huge leaps taking place. Even though the audience might not be aware of those individual stories, I hope they can still get the same energy.
“That’s the same with my response to Chekhov. Three Sisters as a play is revolutionary. It’s so funny, but it’s also heart-breaking. We’re doing it with less affectations than more traditionally played Chekhov sometimes has, and are trying to do something more disarming. These characters all feel they’re profoundly irrelevant, but here we are a century on, and they’re still here, proving that they’re still utterly relevant.”
As for the future of Lung Ha, Oller seems to have absorbed the Chekhovian spirit of keeping on keeping on no matter what life throws at you.
“We need to work,” she says. “Right now we’re full-on with this production, and once that’s done, we then sit down and talk about what we do next, and see how we stay creative. Above all else, we work.”
Three Sisters, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 15-17; Perth Theatre, March 23-24; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 28.
The Herald, March 13th 2018