Thursday, 17 January 2013

Theatre review: Three Sisters

For their second show in the current rep season The Faction tackle Chekhov for the first time, and in keeping with Glum January it's perhaps his most despairrific play, Three Sisters. Stuck in a small, dull provincial town with only the local regiment to provide subjects for discussion, the Prosorov sisters and their brother are fed up, but sure that a return to Moscow and happiness isn't that far off. But Olga's (Kate Sawyer) teaching career takes over more of her life than she intended; Masha's (Derval Mellett) unhappy marriage is made more complicated by the arrival of a dashing new colonel; Irina's (Elizabeth Twells) romantic dreams of working life are crushed by the reality; and Andrei's (Lachlan McCall) marriage to local girl Natasha sees him sucked into a domestic role he never expected. Over the next couple of years the family's dreams are steadily crushed or simply fade away.

The company have commissioned a new, snappy but reasonably traditional version from prolific translator Ranjit Bolt, and although Mark Leipacher's production has his visual signature of a minimalist, physical staging in modern dress, the performance style ends up fairly traditional as well. There's a large amount of mismatched old chairs that make up the set, and make the family home more three-dimensional as they're moved to suggest different rooms and corridors where the action could be taking place, as opposed to the original's single location per act. And Leipacher also uses them to set out his stall pretty quickly about how detached from reality Irina is at the start, her musings about the beauty of hard work contrasting with the sisters' ancient nanny Anfisa, lugging the furniture around in the background.

Although a company I've liked for a few years now, I've expressed reservations in the past about The Faction's characterisation, and Chekhov could have proved their undoing. Fortunately it seems to have worked the other way, spurring them on to some more detailed work. I particularly liked Laura Freeman giving a strong sense of Natasha's development from chavvy local girl and butt of everyone's jokes, to monstrous lady of the manor. There's chemistry between Mellett's Masha and Jonny McPherson's terribly handsome and dashing Vershinin that really comes to a head in the final act, and Jonathan Plummer's nice-but-doomed Baron Tuzenbach suggests that Irina might be right in thinking she could be happy with him despite not loving him.

The production's uneven though, and feels like it hasn't always taken the opportunity for a fresh approach that the company's style could have given the play. Turning Chebutikin's gift of a samovar into an electric kettle feels more like a gag than a properly thought-out modernisation because, although we know the Prosorovs aren't as well-off as when they were younger, it does beg the question of just how poor they are if a plastic Kenwood kettle is treated as an incredible extravagance. The ensemble is also much younger than a lot of the characters they play, with mixed results: Wisely, they've opted against ageing makeup but Anna-Maria Nabirye's costume and gait suggest Anfisa's great age, and McPherson's voice has some of the weariness of the forty-something he clearly isn't; Gareth Fordred's Chebutikin claiming to be in his sixties though doesn't seem backed up by anything else in the action. Perhaps Leipacher could have adapted the character's age as he did with Ferapont (Andrew Chevalier) who, in one of the more inventive touches, goes from old man with failing hearing to young deaf man.

But overall I found this production was pretty strong, and if not the most creative of The Faction's shows could prove an important stepping stone if they can use it as a learning experience and merge some of its character work with the visual creativity they've already developed in their previous work.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a version by Ranjit Bolt is booking in repertory until the 23rd of February at the New Diorama Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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