Anton Chekhov, in a version by Cordelia Lynn
The Almeida is pursuing a determined policy to reimagine the classics, generally modernising the script at the same time as minimising the staging and spectacle.
One of the theatre’s Associate Directors, Rebecca Frecknall, has already given this treatment to Summer and Smoke, to great acclaim which resulted in in a West End transfer.
Now, Chekhov finds himself in her spotlight in what is described as a version of Three Sisters by promising young writer Cordelia Lynn. The designations are becoming clouded, since it might be suggested that rather than a version of the original, this is a new play based on the Russian doctor’s masterpiece.
The opening is distinctive, with a square stage space filled with chairs, suggesting that there might have been a late, unannounced change to a surreal evening of Ionesco.
Instead, a silent prologue heralds the three-hour-long new “version” of a piece about unrequited and inappropriate love at a time when the landed gentry was discovering that its days were numbered.
This style of theatre seems to thrive on what might best be described as highly accentuated characterisations. Everybody on stage, down to those in the smallest roles, seems to have been encouraged to play up the oddities of the individuals that they are asked to portray, which can be amusing but doesn’t always make for coherent interactions.
Inevitably, the main concentration is on the trio of Prozarov sisters, as well as Freddie Meredith playing their lethargic brother Andrey and sister-in-law Natasha, given a bombastic modern reading by Lois Chimimba.
Each of the sisters is distinctive, while the main connection between them is that all suffer from moments of hysteria at various points in the evening.
Patsy Ferran as lonely schoolteacher Olga gives her usual solid performance, getting to the heart of the character as reliably as ever. Pearl Chanda is middle sister Masha, a manic-depressive who only shows any signs of life when in the company of Peter McDonald playing the interesting intellectual, Vershinin. Finally, Ria Zmitrowicz is Irina, supposedly 20 but acting like a pre-teen for much of the evening, sulky to the point of distraction.
The ebbs and flows of their desire to marry, avoid destitution and perhaps even make it to the glamour of Moscow consistently amuse, although the pain of the original is not always as apparent.
Around the edges, Natasha is so obviously as bad as her husband believes she is good that even that Chekhov staple, the drunken doctor played on this occasion by Alan Williams, is eventually reduced to declaiming that “Protopopov off is fucking Natasha”, a line strangely bowdlerised from all known published versions of the original. The updating also leads to other moments of incongruity, for example with a duel.
There is undoubtedly a strong market for modern takes on classics and this production should tap into that with every prospect of another West End transfer of a witty, sometimes superficial evening. Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether this style is as challenging and fulfilling as a more sober and faithful staging of the play that Chekhov wrote.