How would you direct the actor playing ‘Vershinin’ in order to make his motivation clear in Acts 1 and 4 of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’?
In Act one we first meet the character of Vershinin, introduced as ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin’, a middle-aged and seemingly very capable man, ‘certainly no fool’. Before we meet him, the audience already has a preconceived idea of what this man will be like due to Tusenbach’s descriptions. The constant theme in his description becomes one of marriage and despondency as we are informed of his wife trying to commit suicide ‘evidently to spite her husband’. As such, Vershinin’s entrance becomes clouded in anticipation and his arrival needs to be played with slight apprehension, being covered by his forward personality.
In act 1, Vershinin has a difficult time coming into a family where the father has died and he has replaced him as a commander after knowing him well; ‘the same battery as your father’. This is an uncomfortable situation to be in and the character’s anxiety as an interloper would need to be portrayed through nervous gestures for example shuffling in his seat when being asked questions by the girls, or nervously touching a part of his uniform. He seating during this questioning allows many opportunities for the actor to show his discomfort and desire to please.
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The tone of his voice needs to still be strong and confident, yet his body language telling us other things about the character. I would direct him so as throughout the entire play, Vershinin has a lot of feelings that he hides well, and this direction according to sub-text would emphasise his hidden depth. He seems to be a proud man, yet extremely discontent with his own life, leading him to philosophise regularly in order to make his life more bearable. He speaks of wanting ‘to start our life afresh’ and to have a second chance where he openly says he ‘shouldn’t get married… ot for any money’. The actor needs to strongly portray this to his audience, stressing the links with Vershinin’s own life and the key line ‘I shouldn’t get married… ‘ In this speech, Vershinin seems to speak so freely of his troubles with his wife in front of a group of total strangers that we get the impression that he wants others to know his business, enhancing Tusenbach’s line ‘he tells everyone he’s got a wife and two little girls’. This is re-iterated with the open affair he has with Masha, and their very public kiss goodbye in Act 4.
This obvious want of sympathy is ignored by the other characters, due to the arrival of Masha’s husband; and the audience would need to feel the relief of the other characters at this. However this desperate need to be cared for continues to ring out throughout both acts. The fact that we are told his wife tries to commit suicide to spite him would suggest that his home life is not loving in the slightest. In order for the audience to recognise this, the actor would perhaps play the speech very melodramatically to crave acceptance and sympathy, often turning to check the responses of others.
However, the marriage line I feel is solely for him (and the audience), and would be played more sincerely, with a serious tone and lower pitch than the rest of the speech. So when Vershinin says of his wife “She’s poisoned herself again”, it should be played with the petulant irritation of one whose day has been slightly spoiled. It is in Act 1 that Vershinin first meets Masha with whom he has an affair. In this act she is very short with him, however this is probably due to the fact that he is from Moscow where he sisters want to go and where she can’t, as she is married.
The love that develops between these two unhappy people is always touching, yet one cannot help wandering whether Vershinin is prone to these affairs. Maybe he is the reasons why his wife is so unhappy. It would explain as to why his wife tries to spite him if she herself feels unloved and hurt that he would love other women. A vicious cycle would therefore ensue, leading to more depression and driving Vershinin further away from his family. This would also explain that he was married previously, and as he would be away often with the army, it is possible.
The affair clearly starts, as he desires to be loved, and so I think that the meetings between them in the final act would need to be played with much intensity and tenderness. The tone of his voice would need to change from the usual assuredness, to being a lot quieter and perhaps more anxiously. The movement in these scenes would need to be increased as the sense that what they are doing is wrong, deepens. If the audience were to pause the seen, Vershinin’s expressions would need to be read as a mixture of uncertainty, love, anxiety, happiness and much indecision.
Facially, more smiles would flicker across his face, and the actor would be in much lighter make up to show the relief of love. Act 4 concerns the parting of the two characters as Vershinin leaves. These scenes are the most intensely emotional in the entire play as the happiness of both characters is destroyed, and their found love must die. The character as a whole is much more silent throughout this act, reflecting his sorrow at leaving Masha. When he does speak, his pace would need to be significantly slowed as he tries to prolong every minute left with her.
However, he does still spare a thought for his wife and children, showing that he is a loving man. In comparison to the first act where he complains about them, the story completely changes when he has to leave them. The anxiety would need to be maintained in his voice, yet his overconfident nature would need to be diminished in his speech. I would place the character in much heavier make up and restricting clothes to represent the burden he is carrying leaving Masha, going off to war and how his life will become more restricted and distressing without her.
In comparison to when we first see this handsome, character, appreciating every tree on the sisters’ estate, in this Act he would be much more drawn, with less confident body language and a lot of long nostalgic, unhappy stares. His long speech at the end is very gloomy and as an audience we need to understand that he is relating all to leaving Masha. He does however say that life is ‘becoming steadily easier and brighter’. This seemingly shows that Vershinin believes that since his affair, he can take a new, more beautiful view on things as he has learned to love.
His enter pace would be slower and his tone less consistent; more wavering. As he leaves Masha, we realise how he has changed. In the first act he is almost over-confident, craving affection and speaking assuredly about life and his unhappiness. However, Act 4 contrasts with this, as he is slower in pace and saddened at leaving Masha. Vershinin starts the play as excessively mannered, a socialite and an over-the-top gallant. He ends it as essentially insecure, insensitive, and disillusioned an orator who likes hearing the sound of his own voice.
I use the word ‘insensitive’ as although his parting with Masha is sentimental, it is nowhere near as passionate as it could have been, neither does it seem to affect him as much as it does Masha. Indeed, he seems more hurt at having to leave the Prozorov household as he has ‘grown accustomed to (them) all’. He even attempts at philosophising once more, spending longer talking to Olga than Masha. This makes him insensitive as his slight sorrow at leaving Masha can be construed as feigned, rather than what he actually feels. If he was seriously in love with Masha, I think his entire mannerisms and words in this act would be very different.
Therefore, this leads me to believe that throughout the play, his only interest in Masha was one of friendship and a longing to be accepted as part of their ‘family’. Therefore, I would direct Vershinin to be extremely hurried (as he stresses ‘time is short’) and almost aloof in his final kiss with Masha. Perhaps he enjoyed the affair as he gets no love from his wife, but realises it would never last, unlike the naivety of Masha. As such, this is glimpses of the assuredness and confidence of Act 1, however in a different form.
He is obviously a well educated man and has seen a lot of the world. This is extremely opposite to the Prozorov sisters, and why he appeals to them at first. Masha especially, is taken with Vershinin who has a maturity and experience beyond her dreary existence. In order to portray this to the audience, the actor playing Vershinin would perhaps have a darker skin tone than the isolated Prozorov’s to show how well travelled he is; glasses stereotypically embody intelligence and education and even small things such as the way in which the character holds himself would suggest so.
As he takes an interest in their house, this again would symbolize a curiosity associated with those whom travel. Therefore, a keen interest in artefacts on set would emphasize his well-travelled self and as such his knowledge on many things which are new to the sisters, like the affair. We see people brimming with hopes in Act I who have reached the end of their tether or have sunk into resignation by Acts III or IV.
Vershinin’s existing marriage veers into adultery in the desperate attempt to snatch at happiness, his philosophising becomes more harrowing as he realises that soon he will have to leave Masha and his wife tries to kill herself to ‘spite him’ yet again. Certainly, the life of Vershinin over the space of these acts is distressing, leading us to find many reasons for his behaviour and the behaviour of other characters towards him, like his wife. Directing the character would involve a lot of work upon nervous gestures and arrogance in Act 1, leading to sorrow and less movement in the final act.