Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov
Moscow Sovremennik Theatre
Noël Coward Theatre
(2011)

Three Sisters production photo

The whirligig of time and the road out Pyotr Kirillov's and Vyacheslav Zaitsev's Three Sisters set relies on two visual metaphors to encapsulate the play's overarching themes: a static bridge arching over the whole of the stage, looming over the action, and a spinning raked revolve.

Hokusai's bridge out of town and Edvard Munch's girls on a bridge: three orphaned women stand facing the world as a cold wind blows, the opening image, dreaming of leaving this provincial stagnant backwater for Moscow. When Vershinin talks of that gloomy bridge he had to cross in Moscow near his barracks, and the sadness and loneliness that touched his heart, the sisters must recognise his existential pain. If only they could find that lost key to the piano, then they would find happiness

The bridge of sighs, the symbol of their road out, from the house to the outside world, from dream to reality, obscures all other thoughts and actions, as it obscures the actors at the rear of the stage from the audience's view. The sightlines from the Royal Circle are poor. The front stalls are more fortunate, as they can probably see under that bridge.

What with the impracticalities of the bridge and poor acoustics, one was grateful for the surtitles, but they are no substitute for hearing Chekhov's words as they were written, played by an ensemble at their best under Galina Volchek's reverent, but not without humour, production. We are eavesdroppers, but someone keeps on turning the volume down. We can't catch it all, but then eavesdroppers never do.

A play about remembering and forgetting (the human condition), about fearful time, that Shakespearean arc of the ages of man, opens with the hope of youth on Irina's 20th name day, and ends with all ambitions thwarted and hopes dashed, with middle-aged capitulation, compromises and accommodations, and the detached retired doctor's 'what does it matter', 'what difference does it make' one Baron more, one Baron less We are all sitting on a tomb-de-ay, in any case. Life never turns out as expected. How it deceives.

Attempts at love are frustrated at every turn. Every marriage and pairing is, or goes, wrong. Is Chekhov jadedly imitating Hamlet, "We will have no more marriages"... Andrei hates his wife, Masha returns to her disappointing husband, Irina is saved from a loveless marriage to the Baron only by his pointless death at the hands of Solyony (existential pain in action made to look ridiculous) in unrequited love with Irina.

For spinster Olga (Olga Drozdova in fine voice) the world is one big headache, as it probably will be for Irina. The doctor once loved their mother, but now can't remember whether she returned his love. Vershinin's marriage is a moribund one, and so he turns to affairs of the heart and philosophising.

Only the vulgar Natasha (Elena Plaksina taking her at full affected tilt), using her feminine wiles, gets what she wants, openly cuckolding her husband and not giving a damn. Snatch and grab, is this the future?... The over-educated sisters are marooned in a crass whirlwind that is sweeping the best of them away

Is this why the doctor (Igor Kvasha's drunken despairing scene is the best I've seen) breaks the clock, to stop time? Was this clock a reminder of days gone by, another tactless expensive present to the love of his life? Can time be stopped and captured for all eternity? Rode and Fedotik try with their camera.

Each new production of any of Chekhov's plays (like Hamlet productions, there are many) brings out new shades and nuances, but a Russian production brings out the music of his language, and the cultural sensibilities missed by English productions - these cannot be imitated, only caricatured.

Here we see a real family in every sense, easy with each other, teasing and playful, sad and compassionate, all caught up in the dance to the music of time. The Sovremennik is fortunate in its ensemble of actors many years with the company, and its influx of fresh faces. Their roles fit like a glove. If only they could speak up a bit.

The beautiful young Chulpan Khamatova played Masha on the first night and Irina on the second (the one I saw). It might have been interesting to see her Irina first, and then the married Masha, dressed in black (is she like Masha in The Seagull in mourning for her life?), a development of disillusionment.

It is a privilege, and an imperative, to see a Russian ensemble doing what it was born to do, breath life into Chekhov, whose time is still with us - little changes in the hearts of men. Janet Suzman, Michael Pennington, and Northern Broadsides' director Barrie Rutter - at least in my line of vision - obviously obeyed the call. It was not just Russian ex-pats listening to the master's voice.

A symphony in four movements taken at a slow tempo in spite of a whirling set, spinning and humming like the toy top at the end of Act One. Ominous sounds in the chimney of the winds of time. Tremendous. I loved every minute of it, all three and a half exhausting hours. The acting overcame the handicap of the bridge that led them nowhere. Soundscape and music by Moisey Vainberg lifted the production into another realm.

Reviewer: Vera Liber