Thursday, 18 April 2019

Theatre review: Three Sisters

Great timing from the Almeida, as Rebecca Frecknall and FD Patsy Ferran return for their next collaboration straight after their Olivier success for Summer and Smoke. For Ferran at least this is something of a different proposition though: Where Tennessee Williams can be relied on for a barnstorming female lead, Chekhov is much more of an ensemble affair, and Ferran's Olga is by far the most low-key of the Three Sisters. For Frecknall, on the other hand, there's a more obvious link with her last show here as a fairly stripped-down production conjures atmosphere and heartbreak. As far as overwhelming visual themes go the closest thing to Summer and Smoke's gutted pianos are the plain wooden chairs that fill Hildegard Bechtler's askew stage, arranged like church pews in a wordless prologue that takes place at the General's funeral, a year before the events of Act I.

The chairs gradually get cleared away as the General's daughters' horizons narrow: A year after the funeral and it's the youngest, Irina's (Ria Zmitrowicz) birthday, and not enough has changed.

The sisters still live in the remote small town their father was posted to many years earlier; although not dirt poor they clearly don't have the resources to return to Moscow, a dream of theirs that famously becomes a mantra. Besides, middle sister Masha (Pearl Chanda) is (unhappily) married to the local schoolteacher, and their brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith) is also engaged to a local girl his sisters hate. The family's social circle still consists almost exclusively of the soldiers their father used to command, and when the new commanding officer arrives Masha falls for him hard (he's played by Peter McDonald now firmly in silver fox territory so fair enough.)

Cordelia Lynn's version of the text is occasionally sweary but otherwise pretty traditional; it and Bechtler's designs keep the specifics of time and place vague enough that I could easily place it in its original 1901 Russian setting, but it's not too much of a stretch to see universality in it either. To me Three Sisters is right up there with Uncle Vanya as the bleakest Chekhovs which makes it hard to love, but the dreamlike tone Frecknall gives it helped carry me along with it, and Chanda makes Masha's parting from Vershinin genuinely heartbreaking. On the other hand Lynn and Frecknall have found the seam of black comedy that's always running through Chekhov somewhere, which makes the evening more than just a series of punishments as the sisters have their escape routes taken away from them.

Meredith's Andrey is a nonentity a bit too early - here he's very much the least interesting family member who's been bigged up just because he's male, rather than any kind of story of lost potential. But Elliot Levey gives an original take on Masha's husband Fyodor: Instead of just a dullard he's a quietly tragic figure who's well aware he's the resident loser but actually has a knack for defusing a situation; the audience are glad he's there for the sisters even if they're not. As creepy proto-Communist Vasily, Alexander Eliot is something of a sexy menace in the background, a contrast to Irina's sweeter rival suitor, Shubham Saraf's Baron.

Even Lois Chimimba's Natasha feels a bit more of an understandable character here; the sisters' blatant snobbery towards their brother's local wife is what turns her into a monster when she gets the upper hand over them. Ultimately this isn't the revelation that Summer and Smoke was but there's a lot to take from it: It's interesting that Ferran (who apparently agreed to appear in this because Frecknall offered her Olga, and playing the oldest of anything goes against her typecasting,) has chosen to follow up her award-winning role with a much less flashy character: She still brings something special to the stage every time she appears to provide the supportive heart of the family, but also shows the generosity to let the other lead actresses show off Chanda's passion and Zmitrowicz' fireworks.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a version by Cordelia Lynn is booking until the 25th of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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