Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov, in the new version by Nicholas Wright

RNT Lyttelton

(2003)

Review by Philip Fisher

Anna Maxwell Martin, still only two years out of drama college gives an outstanding performance as Irina, the youngest of Chekhov's Three Sisters, in Katie Mitchell's stylish production. This is not to belittle the efforts of a number of the other members of the cast.

Irina, on her 20th birthday, still bounces around with youth and hope, whereas her older sisters already have the more jaundiced view of life that she eventually realises is her own lot, as her optimism is worn down long before the play's tragic ending.

The spinsterish schoolteacher, Olga, played by Lorraine Ashbourne, knows that life is to be endured while the ever-excellent Eve Best's Masha, married to a crushing bore, must seek dangerous excitement outside marriage with the dashing, philosophical Colonel Vershinin (Ben Daniels). The love between these two desperately unhappy people is always touching.

Even their dreadfully unworldly brother, Dominic Rowan as Andrey, finds that the love of his life and secret gambling sprees are not enough to make up for a mundane and unfulfilling existence. Having said that, nobody married to the truly awful, unfaithful Natasha, played with whining relish by Lucy Whybrow, could hope to be happy.

Katie Mitchell does well to capture the symbolism of the play and in particular, the family's yearning for a metaphorical and real Moscow, where they believe that their lives can restart happily. It is only Olga who understands that this will never happen to a typical Chekhovian family where landed wealth has leaked away to the likes of the nouveau riche Natasha.

Beyond the family, there is much to admire in the performances of other members of the cast, particularly Patrick Godfrey as the generous but dissolute old doctor who will eventually become a burden on the family, and Paul Hilton as the greasy, idle but somehow charming Baron Tuzenbach.

As so often at the National, the "magnificent quarters" designed by Vicki Mortimer are splendid and, with the assistance of Paule Constable's lighting, the production rarely looks less than beautiful. The set covers the full width and much of the stage's depth. This enables the director most effectively to present action simultaneously in more than one place.

Nicholas Wright's new version contains slightly modernised language and on occasions, this jars as anachronistically offensive words burst from prim lips. This is a small criticism to offer to what is a generally well-acted and very moving production.