Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov in a new version by Anya Reiss
Jagged Fence and Tarento Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Emily Taaffe as Masha, Olivia Hallinan as Olga and Holliday Grainger as Irina Credit: Annabel Vere

Anya Reiss’s award-winning comedy Spur of the Moment was produced at the Royal Court when she was still at school and last year she gave us her version of The Seagull at Southwark’s former premises. Now she has a version of Spring Awakening currently on tour and, still only 22, has come up with this contemporary version of Three Sisters.

She has turned the Prozorovs into an English family stuck thousands of miles from “home”. They live “near a British Embassy, overseas”, it isn’t specified where. It is possibly the Middle East, for there is a passing reference to Arabic.

The traditional way their old family servant Anfisa dresses should be a clue, is it Russian? The locals all have Russian names, but so do the family. Was their father an émigré Russian who went back after the fall of communism? But then the military personal from the embassy have Russian names too. It is all a little confusing!

The titular three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, along with their brother Andrey came here when their father took a job here. It was supposed to be for three years—“four at the most”—but he sold their London home and bought this one. They are still here, a year after his death and they would rather be back in Britain. They are bored but who is to blame?

Why do their contacts with the embassy seem limited to its military staff? They have mobile 'phones and tablets so presumably access to all the modern media (indeed, their brother runs up gambling debts online) and, since Masha is married to local schoolteacher Kulygin, Andrey is courting a local girl and Olga a schoolteacher too, they clearly have no problem with the local language.

This production makes you very aware of the inadequacies of these sisters. Olivia Hallinan (Olga), Emily Taaffe (Masha) and Holliday Grainger (youngest sister Masha) make them convincing as sisters, rather spoiled ones.

Despite talk about wanting to work not laze around, they are used to being waited on, Olga excepted, who already knows about responsibility, they rarely consider other people’s feelings. But if they really wanted to go back to England, there is nothing stopping them, except that they would have to actually book the flights themselves.

Perhaps they and their acquaintances really are a modern British equivalent of those privileged Russians whose world was soon to be swept away, but this version keeps far too closely to the original to make any direct comment on the position of these post-colonial expats. Nor does it find a way to explain the tragic ending.

Are we really to believe that David Carlyle’s likeable Scottish Tusenbach (whom we see pocketing a knife) has been challenged by this neurotically nervous Solyony (Joe Sims) to a knife fight, the replacement for the duel in the original?

If the update is often awkward, the actors make the interaction of the characters believable. Paul McGann’s military attaché Vershinin becomes more of a poseur philosopher than a real one and there is a feeling that, rather than returning the passionate feelings that Masha develops for him, she is someone to whom he can let off about his marriage, as unsatisfactory as hers.

Thom Tuck’s Andrey lets us see what he used to be like before he started to let things go. So trying to convince himself that things are good that his proposal to Emily Dobbs’s gauche and selfish Natasha seems quite in character, blind to what a bitch she really is.

Michael Garner is a gentle Chebutykin, but this production smudges his back-story that has blighted his life, though brings out how even he, like most of the others, is in some way a comment on matrimonial relationships and problems.

Dudley Rogers is gently comic as deaf old Ferapont without overdoing it and Jane Thorne a Russian revenant as the old nurse Anfisa, touching in her insecurity when Natasha has taken charge of the household.

Played with the audience on three sides of Anthony Lamble’s set, with its classical doorway painted on a strawboard wall like a pretence to former glories, Russell Bolam’s production creates a lively, domestic ambience and integrated performances.

Occasionally, when playing to the opposite side of the audience, speech becomes a little blurred but mainly these well-educated, privileged people are clearly spoken—and so they should be!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton