Cheek by Jowl and the Chekhov International Theatre Festival
Cheek by Jowl, in concert with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival offer London a wonderful opportunity to see the cream of Russian acting in a play by their country's finest exponent. This is part of BITE:07, in a re-fashioned Barbican theatre, with steeply raked temporary seating over the normal auditorium.
The most popular actress on show is Nelly Uvarova. She acts well but her cult following in her home country knows the lady as the star of their equivalent to the American TV sitcom Ugly Betty.
British audiences cannot be expected to know this and therefore will take what Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have to offer at face value - and it is pretty special.
Ormerod's design is simple with the main features, numerous chairs and a symbolic doll's house that set out as a happy setting for the celebration of youngest sister, Irina's name day but by the end are, like the house and its owners, in dreadful disarray.
One problem that the design causes indirectly by the use of big screens is the placement of the surtitles. These are so high up that one has to make a conscious effort to switch between their exceptionally good translations and the action way below.
This is a minor quibble regarding a special event that allows the British to enjoy this play in its native language and acted in what is often a distinctively Russian style.
The characterisation from all on show is particularly memorable, with each person having their distinctive but entirely believable foibles that eventually reveal them to be fully rounded human beings, to the extent that one would not be surprised to bump into them in the street are at a party.
The most expressive and possibly the wittiest actor on show is Evgenia Dmitrieva playing the oldest sister, Olga. She is a school teacher who is desperately trying to keep the once wealthy family together, eleven years after they have left their beloved Moscow following the much-loved patriarch's death.
She and her siblings, though, will never know true happiness for any great period of time, as love passes them by, work fails to fulfil and it becomes clear that their yearning for something different and exciting, symbolised by far-off Moscow will inevitably never be satisfied.
Irina Grineva plays blonde-haired Masha, who married cheery school teacher Kulygin at 18 and has lived to regret it ever since. With the arrival of tubby, ageing Vershinin (Alexander Feklistov) she finds something like happiness but it is not the real thing. The moment when the two lock eyes at their first meeting presages so much but destiny prevents fulfilment.
Irina, the youngest sister, played by Miss Uvarova, starts the play at 20, still believing that life will give her joy. She too is eventually worn down by the grind of small-town society, an assault by gloomy Solenyi (Evgeny Pisarev) and the loss in a duel of the man whom she wishes to marry but does not love, Andrey Kuzichev's Tuzenbakh.
Being a man doesn't help either, as their brother Andrey, played by Alexei Dadonov, discovers that marriage to his first love, Ekaterina Sibiryakova's Natasha, brings children and distress in equal measure.
Natasha, at first wearing an unbecoming plait down to her waist is the unfashionable representative of the nouveau riche. While she initially entrances Andrey, soon enough she is riding out with a lover Protopopov and, as the play advances in two year jumps, taking over the household while her unhappy husband gambles away the family wealth.
For three hours, the audience is entirely gripped by the problems of the three sisters and their satellites, until the army finally departs, leaving them bereft of any interests and like Uncle Vanya and Sonya, with nothing to do but endure and hope.
Declan Donnellan's production is characterised by very strong acting and interesting changes in tempo than maintain the interest throughout. It is only on for one week. Rush to get your tickets.
V Mitchell reviewed this production at Northern Stage, Newcastle
Reviewer: Philip Fisher