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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Three Sisters
Almeida Theatre   Spring 2019

Director Rebecca Frecknall's vision of Chekhov's drama is a modernising one, occasionally awkward but often successful in freeing the play from the burdens of a century of too-often lazy and unimaginative stagings. But its major accomplishment is to stay out of the way of the play.

That may sound like faint praise, but in today's directorial climate a production that doesn't impose an obtrusive and idiosyncratic filter between play and audience is to be celebrated.

Frecknall's strength lies in seeing the play and characters in modern terms, freeing them from accumulated assumptions and type-casting.

The stage is all-but-bare, the characters in plain modern dress. It may seem like a small thing, but when most of the male characters are military, removing all the period Chocolate Soldier uniforms rescues the play from an old-fashioned operetta feel.

(Of course, along with adaptor Cordelia Lynn's fluidly contemporary dialogue, all sense of time and place and of Russian-ness is lost, but that proves no great sacrifice.)

Director Frecknall has guided her actors to escape traditional short-cuts and cliches of characterisation in refreshing ways.

Take Olga, the eldest of the eponymous sisters, for example. She is almost always played as a dessicated old maid, but Patsy Ferran reminds us that she's only 28 at the play's opening, and can sometimes think, feel and sound almost like a teenager.

The basic arc of the play is that everyone declines as time goes by and their small world shrinks even further, and Ferran attractively gives Olga what too many previous Olgas have lacked – a starting point from which to decline.

The youngest sister, Irina, has traditionally been even more tightly limited by imagining and playing her as an archetypal virginal ingenue and nothing more. But Ria Zmitrowicz discovers that Irina has sensitivity and intelligence, with moments of sounding more grown-up than anyone else.

In Shakespearean terms, she is more Juliet than Ophelia, making the character and her emotional adventure far more complex and simply more interesting than most Irinas have been allowed.

The middle sister Masha has generally been allowed more individuality and depth than the others, and Pearl Chandra takes her a little further, playing her both more internally than usual, using Masha's frequent silences to show us an intelligence observing and processing what's going on around her, and more passionate.

To the extent that there is a central plot event in the play it is Masha's doomed love affair with the local garrison's new commanding officer. Chekhov makes it clear that this is a love affair mainly of kindred spirits and intellects, but director Frecknall and actor Chandra remind us that such a connection can be both passionate and sexy.

This leads to one unfortunate moment when Masha and Peter McDonald's Vershinin roll around the floor in passionate embrace, but also to the very strong moment a little earlier when they stand fifteen feet apart just talking and the sexual energy between them is palpable.

These small but liberating tweaks extend to other characters as well. In previous productions Vershinin always threatened to become a bore, constantly speechifying about his philosophical hobby horses. But simply by playing him as casually chatting or occasionally thinking out loud rather than as lecturing, Peter McDonald makes him more realistic and attractive.

Not everything works. As I suggested, that on-the-floor moment is a bit too much, burdening Lois Chimimba's Natasha with a working-class British accent goes in the wrong direction by lazily typing her, and the mainly bare stage sometimes makes the play seem to be all about constantly moving a few chairs around.

But if this happens to be your first Three Sisters you will see Chekhov's play unhindered by excessive 'interpretation' and if it is your second or third or tenth, you will find refreshing touches newly illuminating over-familiar bits of the play and characters.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Three Sisters - Almeida Theatre 2019
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