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Sydney Theatre Company's Three Sisters. Photo by Brett Boardman

Cheat sheet:
Three Sisters

Meet the minds behind the masterpiece

Andrew Upton reveals his modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov's classic, and exactly what Bob Dylan has to do with this classic Russian play.

“Funny and scouring... gives Chekhov's play a modern, Australian feel.”
Limelight Magazine
 
Sydney Theatre Company

Poet of the heart

Artistic Director Andrew Upton on Dylan's lyrics

Very early in Act 1, Masha is humming a song to herself. That song is clearly a folk song, so I did a little bit of research and found how around the time that Chekhov was writing, the trend amongst the culturally sophisticated classes in Russia was to advocate for peasants and folk culture. They would dress in traditional folk costumes and sing the folk songs. Masha is a sophisticated, educated woman, but she is also stranded in the middle of nowhere, so there's a tension for her as to how pleasurable that folk music might be. I knew Kip wanted the play set around the 1970s, so I thought Bob Dylan’s early work as a songwriter fits right inside that time and the bourgeois idea of getting to know the working class. So, my initial attraction was that I loved 'Man of Constant Sorrow', a folk song that Dylan recorded a great version of, and I wondered if perhaps the sisters’ mother used to play it. I imagined Dylan being a part of the fabric of their family life, while also reflecting the way in which they are sophisticated people in a very unsophisticated environment. And that's the tension.

Andrew Upton
Andrew Upton, former Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director.

“I’m a-goin’ back to Colorado
The place that I’ve started from
If I’d knowed how bad you’d treat me
Babe, I never would have come.”

Bob Dylan, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, Verse 4

Helping to solve the question of Masha’s folk song in Act 1 was how Dylan first touched down in the script. Then, I knew that I needed to find something for Vershinin and Masha to hook onto, but I didn't know until Act 3 that it would also be Dylan. The more of the play I wrote and the more I dug into it, I realised there was something about the fine line Dylan walks between being sophisticated and unsophisticated, between being naive and incredibly well constructed that could be very potent. I think it’s at its best in his love songs, which are phenomenally vulnerable and endearing, and incredibly witty and ‘cool’ in the Marshall McLuhan sense of the word. That got me to 'Blood on the Tracks', which I think is his great broken heart album. I could imagine that if you met someone across time, as Vershinin and Masha do, and found that they shared a favourite song from the album, then that would immediately become a currency between them. And there are so many beautiful images inside Dylan's love songs on that album that, even if you don’t know it, the words will resonate with you as an audience member and you feel the aptness of the lyrics for Masha and Vershinin.

Read more of Andrew's Q&A at sydneytheatre.com.au.

Meet the youngest sister and the rest of the cast at sydneytheatre.com.au.

Nine interesting facts about Chekhov

1. Birth and death

Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, Russia. The son of Pavel and Yevgeniya, the pair ran a grocery store until 1876 when Pavel declared bankruptcy. Sadly, at the young age of 24 Chekhov began to show signs of tuberculosis. On 15 July 1904, he passed away at the age of 44 from the illness in Germany. 

2. One final drink

In the final moments of his life, Chekhov woke in the middle of the night and summoned a doctor to his side. Sadly, the physician could do nothing to help other than offer him a drink. Chekhov’s final words: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.”

3. Married to Olga, who played Masha

In 1901 at the age of 41, Chekhov married Olga Knipper – an actress who originated the role of Masha in Three Sisters. The pair were involved in a long distance relationship, with Chekhov living in Yalta and Olga in Moscow pursuing her acting career. The marriage ended due to Chekhov’s death only three years later. 

4. The lawful wife and the mistress

A man of many talents, Chekhov was also a qualified doctor. Having pursued a career in both medicine and literature, he is quoted as saying “medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress.” 

5. A mongoose called Svoloch

Forget cats and dogs, Chekhov once owned a mongoose called Svoloch (the Russian word for ’bastard’). He described his bizarre pet as “a mixture of rat and crocodile, tiger and monkey.”

6. The Bob Dylan connection goes both ways

Playwright Andrew Upton has included Dylan lyrics in his adaptation of Three Sisters. Dylan was also a great Chekhov fan. In his memoir Chronicles, Dylan wrote: “I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine.” 

7. Shoot to kill

The concept of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is a dramatic principal inspired by statements Chekhov made throughout his career. Put simply, Chekhov once wrote: “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

8. Fodder for film

Over the years, there have been many adaptations and interpretations of Chekhov’s work from the stage to screen, including the critically successful adaptations of The Duel in 2010, Vanya on 42nd Street (based on Uncle Vanya) in 1994, and The Cherry Orchard in 1999. In fact, only Shakespeare outranks Chekhov with the amount of film adaptations of a playwright’s work. 

9. A man of many names

Earlier in his career, Chekhov used different pen-names to publish short stories and humourist pieces. He wrote several short stories under the pseudonym ‘Anton Man Without Spleen’ and others under ‘Antosha Chekhonte’.

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov.