Saturday, 12 April 2014

Theatre review: Three Sisters (Southwark Playhouse)

Until the last couple of years there was a dearth of Chekhov productions that offered anything other than a naturalistic period setting. Yet even before directors started to get a bit more adventurous around him, there was one play I'd only ever seen in modern dress. It's rather depressing that the play people always seem to think remains most relevant is Three Sisters, a play so bleak even Chekhov didn't try to pass it off as a comedy. Anya Reiss is another writer to bring the sisters bang up to date, although she does have previous - and her Seagull was also directed by Russell Bolam, so their return to Southwark Playhouse is a bit of a dream team reunion. The names of the characters haven't been Anglicised, but in other respects Reiss has tested the story's contemporary relevance by giving it a whole new context: The story is now set among British ex-pats in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.

The nearby army camp of the original is now the British Embassy, and this is a country that's largely stayed out of conflict, so the military presence there have little to do. The Prozorovs' widowed father took his family to the Middle East for what was meant to be a few years, buying a house there to have some independence from the Embassy. A year after his unexpected death, his daughters Olga (Olivia Hallinan,) Masha (Emily Taaffe) and Irina (Holliday Grainger) and son Andrey (Thom Tuck) are trapped by a house that's losing its value, unable to afford to return to the UK.

Some parts of the story's relocation work better than others: All four of the siblings feel too old and independent to have followed their father in the first place, let alone be unable to find a way home after his death. Their financial difficulties don't come across, despite the threadbare carpet: I'm not sure people scraping every penny together to return to the UK would have iPads, and even in a less strict Islamic country, surely alcohol wouldn't be cheap and easy enough to get hold of in the vast quantities everyone's necking it here. (And if they were genuinely stuck out there surely the British Embassy would pull some strings, especially since all their friends seem to work there.) But if the update is flawed on a basic level it does provide other nice touches: The idea that Andrey's wife Natasha (a strident Emily Dobbs) doesn't understand how to dress suitably in public takes on a different dimension when the women have to cover their heads to go out. And Masha's dull old husband Kulygin gets a likeable reinvention into Tom Ross-Williams' gormless young local.

I hope we get a moratorium on Three Sisters for a while now as I'm starting to feel over-familiar with the play. I did think there was a spark missing here though - Emily Taaffe has proven she can act when she has to but her stage presence is so minimal that Masha's affair with married attaché Vershinin (Paul McGann) barely registers. As Irina, who likes the idea of hard work a lot better than the reality, Grainger is vibrant, and her unequal relationship with Tusenbach (David Carlyle) becomes the emotional heart of the piece instead.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a version by Anya Reiss is booking until the 3rd of May at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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