A tale of Vanya, Sonia and Masha, sibling rivalry and loving Chekhov

The boy they all want for his body, but not his mind: Spike (Richard Gau) (centre), flanked by Cassandra (Kensiwe Tshabalala); Masha (Louise Saint-Claire) and Nina (Emilie Owen). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein

The boy they all want for his body, but not his mind: Spike (Richard Gau) (centre), flanked by Cassandra (Kensiwe Tshabalala); Masha (Louise Saint-Claire) and Nina (Emilie Owen). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein

Think Anton Chekhov, with his unique sense of family complexity, self-pity and misery. Think contemporary American popular culture with its crass loudness. Mash it all together, and you will yield an approximation of what you get in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a wildly irreverent but empathetic and loving glance at the Russian dramatist, but also at sibling love, disparity and bigness of heart.

It’s an odd play to watch and seems uneven: In the first half, as each character emerges on stage and begins his or her shtick, there’s a point in the puerileness of it all, the loud American dialogue and the utter silly pettiness of what they are arguing over, where you think, can this get any more annoying? And it does. Almost unbearably.

But as the play unfolds, after an interval and several transitions between scenes and over its considerable length of more than two hours, there’s a melodiousness, a range of beautiful self-reflexive caveats and very fine performances that make you feel glad you sat through the first bit.

Vanya (Michael Richard) and Sonia (Bo Petersen) and Masha (Louise Saint-Claire) are middle-aged siblings. Their late parents were academics, and like the darkly funny characters developed by Alan Bleasdale in his masterful mini-series Jake’s Progress, the three children have idiosyncratically been named after Chekhov characters (Bleasdale uses Shakespeare as a case in point, featuring Duncan, Cordelia and Portia and a house named Elsinore). And in turn, the work is littered with obvious and subtle Chekhovian tropes, referencing everything from Three Sisters, to Uncle Vanya to The Seagull. Not to forget a nod in the direction of The Cherry Orchard.

But Chekhov is there in so many other ways than the purely academic or the inhouse literary joke: he’s there in the ways in which the three interface, and the challenges that engulf them and urge them on. He’s there in the pitiful humour. And he’s there in the hugely important caveats which give the whole work soul. This is no serious foray though. It’s light. Occasionally it’s funny and it’s often crispy with other references, around the edges.

Bo Petersen as the woebegone Sonia who was adopted at eight and at 52 feels she’s never had a life, really shines in this work. She lends her character a developed empathy which never loses its sense of authenticity, even through the grimly crass first act. Petersen enables Sonia to embody a sense of hilarity, be it in her man pajamas or her sequined costume that blends the evil queen in Snow White with a rip off of Maggie Smith.

And Richard injects a soul into his Vanya which, too, holds the work with the credibility it warrants.

Saint-Claire tones down her gushing over-the-top Americanness as the play develops, and at its denouement we begin to see some of the sophisticated nuance for which she is known and loved. And you begin to understand the soul of Masha rather than just allowing yourself to be turned away by her petulance and childishness.

The play also has three relative unknowns on stage: Tshabalala as the maid Cassandra, who casts back to the Greek tragic roots of the name with abandon and theatrical aplomb; Gau, in the role of the eponymous Spike that everyone wants for his body but no one wants for his mind; and Owen, as Nina, the pretty young thing next door who proves herself more theatrically savvy than movie star Masha. They’re all competent, but none sing with the three-dimensionality of the rest of the cast.

As the loud hysteria winds down, we’re left, with the backdrop of a magnificently detailed set and in the presence of complicated grown up emotions, glancing at the challenge of nursing ill and elderly parents, that of facing the concept of ageing in a world bruised and disrespected by growing technology, mediocrity and a sense of dispensability. And the play turns on its heel, reaching out and grabbing you by the heart quite quickly and quite mercilessly: suddenly all the flippancy slides into place, a counterpoint to your earlier annoyance. It’s a great play – don’t sneak out at interval.

  • Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is written by Christopher Durang, directed by Bobby Heaney and designed by Jannie Swanepoel, with costume co-ordination by Melissa van Eck. It features Richard Gau, Emilie Owen, Bo Petersen, Michael Richard, Louise Saint-Claire, and Kensiwe Tshabalala and performs at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until August 10.
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