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The Theatreguide.London Review

Three Sisters Archive 

For the archive we file our reviews of several productions of Chekhov's Three Sisters, and plays inspired by it, together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare, or browse.

Young Vic Theatre and tour 2000

A too-infrequent pleasure of fringe theatre is the occasional company with the experience, erudition and imagination to do something really interesting with a classic. It's easy enough to do one more modern-dress Shakespeare, say, but to find a way to reinvent an overly familiar text is far more rare.

Now, if you don't know Chekhov's Three Sisters very well, there's not much point in seeing an alternative production. Even though there's a synopsis of the original in Scarlet Theatre's programme, you'll have trouble following what goes on, and certainly won't get some of the allusions or jokes.

But if you do know the play (it's the one about the three provincial sisters who dream of going to Moscow but sit ineffectually while their brother's bride takes over the house and two of them lose their chances at romance), Scarlet's twin deconstructions of Chekhov, "composed" by Andrzej Sadowski and directed by Katarzyna Deszcz, combine an ironically bemused distance with flashes of intense sensitivity to the original.

They're actually two independent pieces. The first play is essentially a highly concentrated precis of The Three Sisters, with all the male characters left out. What's left are the sisters and the sister-in-law, mainly standing or sitting in pinspots, speaking selected lines from the original and providing instant characterizations.

Olga muses, Masha paces, Irena giggles girlishly, Natasha bustles, and no one gets to Moscow. There are several deliberate laughs and some unintended ones, and moments of surprising intensity. Natasha's growing power, for example, is beautifully captured in a couple of quick strokes: she begins by nervously speaking every line twice, in the (correct) assumption that the others tend to ignore her, and later adopts the posture of military martinet. And the highly condensed text makes innocent lines like "Good night" or "I'm so tired" resonate with the unspoken subtext of the omitted scenes (that's part of what I mean by your having to know the original).

The second play, Others, does the same thing with Chekhov's male characters, only with the added complication of moving backwards, starting with the bleakness of Chekhov's ending and passing through key scenes in reverse order, to the innocent celebrations of his Act One.

Again the four men (the brother Andrey is omitted) are reduced to their semicomic essence - newcomer Vershunin constantly enters and exits, the doctor bemoans the pointlessness of life, overly-intense Soliony wipes his hands, the doomed Baron is irresolute.

Others is inevitably a thinner play than Sisters, since it is, after all, working with secondary characters from Chekhov, but like its partner play, it has strong moments. Much of the humour comes from the sudden non sequiturs of the editing and reverse order, while serious overtones are drawn from the men's military regimentation.

As the one figure who develops in Sisters, Carmelle McAree's Natasha shows the most life, while Edward Halstead's existence-weary doctor sets the tone of Others. Moving through both plays, doubling as servant and comic stage-manager-cum-chorus, Jane Guernier establishes and maintains ironic distance.

At an hour each, both plays are a bit too long for their fragile conceits, and could benefit from just a few minutes' tightening.

Gerald Berkowitz

Three Sisters
Playhouse Theatre Spring 2003

Chekhov's drama of frustration is one of the half-dozen greatest plays ever written, and Michael Blakemore's new production does it full justice.

Chekhov was virtually the first to recognise that most people's lives are made up of tiny sorrows and even tinier triumphs, and that, if observed with a combination of microscopic precision and immense sympathy, could be as moving as the grandest of tragedies. Here, a provincial family have the most modest of hopes - famously, they dream of moving to Moscow and enjoying big city life - and have even those quietly and almost imperceptibly stolen from them.

Olga hates her schoolteacher job and is ironically trapped by promotion to headmistress. Irina is prepared to settle into marriage with a decent young man she doesn't love, and has even that much denied her. Brother Andrei is exactly the sort of man who could be happy with a loving wife running his life for him, and chooses exactly the wrong woman. And Masha, so bored with her marriage that she hardly notices her unhappiness anymore, falls in love with a married soldier, only to have him posted elsewhere.

In short, almost nothing of any note happens - there is a very dramatic fire in mid-play, but Chekhov almost laughs at our expectations by keeping it offstage and eventually irrelevant - but by the end we have experienced the tragedy of small lives driven even smaller.

Under Michael Blakemore's direction, and with a new text by Christopher Hampton that only very rarely jars on the ear with anachronisms, this production is much warmer and more natural-sounding than many, as even the secondary characters are given an unusual reality and depth. Kristin Scott Thomas, the obligatory movie star without whom serious plays canΉt be done in the West End these days, is a particularly subtle and moving Masha. Frozen-faced and hard-edged at the start, she betrays her growing love for  Robert Bathurst's Vershinin by the way her eyes come alive and she can't help grinning with idiotic pride and delight whenever he goes off on one of his attempts at philosophising.

Bathurst, in turn, makes Vershinin less pompous and more likeable than he is often played, letting us see what there is to fall in love with in him. That breaking with the way the roles are too often played - not just for variety's sake, but to discover new humanity in the characters - runs through most of the performances. Kate Burton's Olga is not a desiccated spinster (She's only 28, after all), but a woman who has never expected much of life; while Madeleine Worrall's Irina isn't the usual fairy princess, but a young woman who already half-senses that life will disappoint her.

In the large and almost uniformly strong cast, Tobias Menzies is an amiable Tusenbach, while Tom Beard resists the temptation almost every other Solyony falls into, of playing him as feral villain from the start; instead, he's just socially inept, and driven to anger by his own inability to be as personable as he'd like to be. James Fleet reminds us that Masha's husband is well-meaning and loving man who can't help it if he's no romantic hero.

I'll end where I began. Three Sisters is one of the greatest plays ever written by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It is not just a good-for-you classic. If you give yourself to it, it will move you in ways few others can. And this is just about as good a production as you could ask for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Three Sisters
Lyttelton Theatre, Autumn 2003

Quite simply one of the handful of greatest plays ever written, Chekhov's heartrending study in the slow sinking into inertia has sometimes suffered in the past from a kind of solidifying over-familiarity. Just as Hamlet always mopes around in his black costume, the titular sisters are too often stereotyped into the spinster, the passionate one and the virgin, while other characters are also typed by tradition, leaving too little room for actors and directors to make them come alive.

So a major success of Katie Mitchell's new production at the National Theatre is that the characters all look fresh and new. Mitchell has flattened out some of the artificial distinctions among the sisters, so we see them as more similar than different - three women (Lorraine Ashbourne, Eve Best, Anna Maxwell Martin) with no more than an eight year age range between them, all dreaming of escape from their provincial lives while unable to resist the pull of stasis and inertia.

The fact that they are all having the same tragic experience is more significant than the relatively minor differences between them, and this is the first production I've seen that made that so clear and moving.

Other characters are similarly freshened. Lucy Whybrow's Natasha is not the vulgar witch of too many productions, but a somewhat more subdued villainess, going her own way more out of blind self-absorption than malice. Ben Daniels' Vershinin may be a bit too handsome in a Chocolate Soldier way - Masha is meant to be attracted to his mind, not his appearance - but he is also not quite so foolish in his compulsive philosophising as Vershinins tend to be; and much the same is true of Paul Hilton's amiable Baron and Angus Wright's earnest and sympathetic schoolmaster.

The effect at first is of a kind of flattening, as those who know the play are disappointed and disoriented by the absence of familiar signposts. But quickly one adjusts and finds the play coming alive in fresh, new ways. Stripped of the melodramatic stereotypes, it is much more real, and the sense of quiet inevitability to everyone's failure to achieve their most modest of dreams is all the more tragic.

The freshness is helped considerably by a new translation by Nicholas Wright that is somewhat more liberal than most in paraphrasing, and finding fresh new alternatives to some over-familiar lines, making us quite literally hear them for the first time. (He slips only once, when Masha's dismissing Natasha as a 'small town bitch' hurts the ear.)

Director Mitchell also slips a couple of times, when she tries too hard to be fresh or to unnecessarily underline a point. Because she believes the play is about the inexorable pressure of time, some scenes are punctuated by an incongruous slow-motion sequence. Because she feels the characters are trapped, acts begin and end with the sound of a prison door slamming. On the other hand, interpolating allusions to Swan Lake, by having a mock performance at the First Act party, does add an effective touch of tragic foreboding.

Gerald Berkowitz

3 Sisters on Hope Street
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2008

This new play by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman is openly an adaptation of Chekhov's classic, the provincial Russians yearning for Moscow in the 1890s transformed into Liverpool Jews dreaming of New York in the late 1940s.

That culture shift apart, the adaptation is a very close one, character for character, scene for scene, sometimes line for line.

The visiting soldiers are now American GIs, the offstage fire in Act Three is now an anti-Semitic riot, the plans of Tusenbach and Irina for a future of meaningful work now focus on Palestine, but essentially this is straight Chekhov in semi-modern dress.

Which raises the question 'Why?' Does the Jewish context illuminate Chekhov or Chekhov's structure illuminate the Jewish experience in 1946?

And the answer is essentially 'No'. What we have are two separate plays, one by Chekhov and one about English Jews, uneasily sharing the same stage and our attention.

Now, they are both worthy of our attention, in different ways, but their marriage is strained enough that the author-adapters might well have done better to begin their play afresh.

All the dramatic and emotional power of the evening comes from Chekhov. Witnessing May/Masha's doomed love for Vince/Vershunin, or the equally but differently doomed hopes of Rita/Irina and Tush/Tusenbach, or the decline into cuckolded nonentity of Arnold/Andrei is as moving as it is in any production of Chekhov's play.

On the other hand, it is interesting and thought-provoking to be told that many people, military and civilian, found peacetime disorienting after the intensity of war, and that some Jews might actually have had the advantage of being able to channel their energy and dedication toward Israel.

So, as long as it doesn't disturb you that your heart is engaged here and your brain engaged there, you can find a lot to hold you through the almost three hours of this adaptation.

Director Lindsay Posner anchors the play in its time and place while letting Chekhov's structure and rhythms prevail. Suzan Sylvester captures all the desperation of a May who senses a last chance being offered and taken away at age 35, while Finbar Lynch makes Vince quietly and unobtrusively attractive.

The role of Irina is underwritten in Chekhov, and Samantha Robinson can't do much with her counterpart, though Russell Bentley rightly makes Tush both earnest and a bit silly.

One of the few changes that actually enriches a character explains the Solyony figure's sourness by making him one of the soldiers who liberated Auschwitz, and Gerard Monaco makes us feel for a man who has seen Hell and now can't see anything else. The role of the old doctor/boarder, here Uncle Nate, is given more prominence than in the original, but all the charm and expertise of Philip Voss can't disguise the fact that he's an irrelevant time-filler.

Gerald Berkowitz

Three Sisters
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre January-February 2010 and touring

As its name suggests, the theatre company Filter likes to reinvigorate overly familiar texts by forcing them through the company's stylistic sieve, a kind of neo-Brechtianism characterised by minimal sets, open theatricality, onstage technicians and stagehands, and the strategic placement of microphones to allow characters to turn key speeches from conversation into public announcements.

Their treatment of Chekhov's masterpiece, co-directed by their frequent collaborator Sean Holmes, is actually more restrained than, say, their recently revived Twelfth Night. Staging and characterisations are fairly conventional, and the Filter-ish touches legitimately contribute to the drama, as when Masha's discontented mutterings are amplified or when characters seeking to escape from a painful moment retreat to the visible far corners of the stage wings.

So the power of this production is essentially the power of the play, quietly enhanced by staging devices that don't get in the way - and of course the power of the play is undeniable. The portrait of a family sinking into stasis because they just don't have the energy or gumption to change is as moving, frustrating and occasionally darkly comic here as it always is.

Many in the large cast give what those who know the play will recognise as traditional characterisations, but done very well. Jonathan Broadbent's Tuzenbach is amiable and more than a bit foolish, Ferdy Roberts' Andrei is from the start a nonentity-in-the-making, and Gemma Saunders' Natasha satisfyingly witchy.

If Mark Theodore doesn't really solve the mystery of Solyony's nastiness or John Lightbody offer much sense of what it is in Vershunin that attracts Masha, Paul Brennen manages to make the cuckolded schoolmaster thoroughly comic while retaining a sweet dignity.

The most original touches come in the title characters. For once Poppy Miller is allowed to play Olga at her stated age of 28 rather than as a half-desiccated old maid, making her almost totally passive descent into the rut more touching.

Much the same is true of Clare Dunne's Irina, not the insipid Ophelia/Juliet figure usually played, but a strong and vital young woman looking forward to life, so that her descent into despair (particularly in the fire scene) is all the more dramatic and powerful.

And Romola Garai for once gives us a really sexy Masha, a woman who under any other circumstances could have had a rich passionate life, so that the brief taste and withdrawal of what-might-have-been is particularly heartbreaking.

I sometimes hesitate to recommend 'experimental' productions of classics to those who haven't seen the originals many times before. But this production lets all of Chekhov's drama shine through, while also offering a modest introduction to a very inventive company.

Gerald Berkowitz

Track 3
Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh  August 2013

A couple of years ago Theatre Movement Bazaar turned Chekhov's Uncle Vanya inside-out and found the essence of the play in four men and a piece of music. Their take on The Three Sisters may not be quite as remarkable, but only by their own very high standards could it be judged wanting. 

The adaptation by Tina Kronis and Richard Alger retains all the Russian references – they still dream of Moscow – but filters everything through a 21st-century American sensibility. 

These are no longer provincials with few opportunities – as someone says, 'Nobody's stopping you. All you have to do is leave.' – so it is absolutely clear that it is the sisters' own psychological and emotional blocks that are limiting them. 

Irina is an airheaded princess who has never had a serious or coherent thought in her life, Olga has settled too quickly and comfortably into the role of old maid, and Masha has enough passion to fall in love but not enough to do anything about it. 

Meanwhile the narrative, essentially an efficient condensation of Chekhov's text, is repeatedly punctuated by telling and mood-setting bursts of music and choreography. The entry to Irina's birthday party is literally a cakewalk, the exotic excitement of Moscow is signalled by a Latin beat and Vershunin struts in like Travolta to the BeeGees. 

Under Tina Kronis's direction the cast admirably hit and sustain a level of ensemble commitment to the production's eclectic style that is itself a delight to watch.  

Gerald Berkowitz

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Three Sisters 
Wyndham's Theatre  Spring 2014

Moscow's Mossovet State Academic Theatre visits London for a short season of two Chekhov plays in repertory, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters (performed in Russian with adequate but frequently unsynchronised surtitles), and the most interesting thing about both productions is what they say about Russian attitudes toward their greatest playwright. 

Like some English directors of Shakespeare, Andrei Konchalovsky rejects the idea of the plays as museum-piece classics but sees them as open to re-interpretation for each generation, and also like some English directors, he can't resist gilding perfectly adequate lilies, not always to their benefit. 

While Konchalovsky's Uncle Vanya seems designed deliberately to reduce the play and eliminate any greatness in it, his Three Sisters is a fairly straight-forward production, limited only by some directing and acting choices that move the characters toward the shallowest end of the range Chekhov gave them. 

There is little sense in Yulia Vysotskaya's performance, for example, of Masha's trapped feelings and near-despair even before Vershinin (Alexander Domogarov) appears, and the telling moment in which, hearing him talk and catching the sound of someone potentially interesting, she decides to stay for lunch goes by almost unnoticed. 

Vershinin himself is played as more vapid and vacuous than usual, and Masha far more girlishly flirtatious, which replaces the idea of potential soulmates with an emphasis on her desperation and sexual longing. 

Sex is a bit more in the open here than one expects – Larisa Kuznetsova's Olga vibrates with sexual longing and at one weak point throws herself at Vershinin, and just as Astrov almost rapes Elena in Uncle Vanya, here Soleny is interrupted just in time as he attacks Irina. 

The director repeatedly makes overt the playwright's sense of doom, giving Masha a consumptive cough, having Tuzenbakh go off to the duel intending to die and leaving Andrei a nearly-falling-down drunk in the final act. 

As in Uncle Vanya, a set made up of solid furniture but no walls, with onstage scene changes, hints at a 'Brechtian' approach that is a couple of generations out of date in the West, while interpolated films in which the actors are interviewed about their roles and give comically vapid answers seems perversely designed to undercut whatever emotional involvement the production generates. 

Also as in Uncle Vanya a garden swing briefly appears for some opaque symbolic reason, and the same ghostly woman in white inexplicably wanders onstage briefly, as if to get the most use of the costume. 

Not as wrongheaded as the company's Uncle Vanya, this is just a not-particularly-interesting Three Sisters.

Gerald Berkowitz

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

Three Sisters
Lyttelton Theatre   Winter 2019-2020

Adapter Inua Ellams transports Chekhov's drama from nineteenth-century Russia to twentieth-century Nigeria, teaching us something about African history and far too little about the play.

Let's start with two reminders. Chekhov's play is about a family living in a provincial garrison town and homesick for Moscow. One sister has an affair with an officer, another plans to marry a former soldier, the third and their brother get sucked into local jobs, and when the soldiers move away everyone is left even worse off than they were.

Jumping ahead historically, the African country of Nigeria was created by European colonists with no regard for tribal or cultural history, and in the 1960s, after the country gained independence, the largely Igbo eastern district broke away to declare itself an independent Biafra. After three years of civil war the government forces won and Biafra was absorbed back into Nigeria.

Inua Ellams' play is essentially Chekhov's with names and places changed (The sisters yearn for Lagos), interrupted at irregular intervals for awkwardly inserted references to the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, the characters pausing in mid-plot to tell each other things about local history and politics that they already know, so that we can overhear them.

Chekhov's peacetime garrison is now a brigade of Biafran soldiers awaiting combat orders, and the fire that devastates the village in the original play is now the result of Nigerian air strikes.

Making the characters African and setting the play in a war zone does nothing to affect the meaning or resonances of the play and in fact risks trivialising them.

Chekhov's signature inclusion of characters inclined to philosophise about whether happiness is possible in the present or just something they must devote themselves to making possible for the future is reduced to the very local level of When The War Is Over.

This failure to enhance the play by transforming it is made particularly striking in contrast to two similar relocations the London theatre has seen this year. In September Tanika Gupta moved A Doll's House to British India, allowing overtones of racism to sharpen our response to the sexism in Ibsen's play.

And currently running, Martin Crimp's modern dress Cyrano De Bergerac sets Rostand's rhymed couplets to the rhythms of rap, giving today's audiences an appreciation of the characters' love of and delight in language.

A Doll's House is at least partly about blind prejudice and Rostand's about language, but The Three Sisters is not at all about war – one suspects Chekhov only made some of the characters soldiers to be able to have them all realistically depart at the end.

So Inua Ellams does not illuminate or enrich Chekhov's play at all, but merely uses it as a skeleton on which to hang a separate history lesson.

There isn't even much alteration to the characters in making them African. Racheal Ofori plays the youngest sister as a little sassier and less of a virginal blank than some others in the role, and the love affair of the Masha and Vershunin figures (Natalie Simpson and Ken Nwosu) involves a little more passionate kissing than you might be used to.

But that's really about it, and the best that can be said of this Three Sisters is that, except when it is digressing into African history, it doesn't get too much in the way of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz
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