Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov in a new version by Ranjit Bolt
The Faction
New Diorama Theatre

Three Sisters

This is The Faction’s first Chekhov, and his tale of three young women stuck out in the sticks, far from the culture and society of Moscow, gets a lively and unsentimental presentation in Mark Leipacher’s production.

Ranjit Bolt’s version keeps the Russian patronymics but is fluently modern and gets modern costuming, but a small transistor radio and a shiny electric kettle as a name day gift instead of a samovar are the only evidence of modern technology.

Although there are no televisions or mobile 'phones in this household, life goes on in an old-fashioned way. Nevertheless, modern dress does make one look for a contemporary twist. Are we in twenty-first century Russia or some late period of the Soviet era? The Faction’s publicity image of a girl in a wood in a gasmask made me think post-Chernobyl, but I could see no relevance in performance—my response was obviously far too literal.

With Chekhov’s early twentieth century characters talking about a world that looked forward to social change, Jonathan Plummer’s Tuzenbach speaks of a coming proletarian society, a world where everyone works. Modern capitalist Russia may have put the clock back but to a world of inequalities but the situation is different today.

The effect of his talk and the philosophising of Jonny McPherson’s Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin is that when either of them gets on their particular conversational hobbyhorse, it is not to signal change but to emphasise the tedium. The officers from the local unit may be a welcome distraction for the Prozorov household but it is still a world of boring sameness.

That ennui is there from the moment the audience enters the theatre. The Prozorov girls are already present: Elizabeth Twell’s Irina, the youngest, motionless, looking into space, Derval Mellett’s 25-year-old Masha, married to the local schoolmaster whom she does not love, sitting by a window reading, and Kate Sawyer’s Olga, a 29-year-old teacher pacing up and down correcting an exercise book.

They are well characterised and the modern dress of this production makes them as much a part of the problem as the society they are stuck in. While the text places their situation a century ago and that explains their inertia, this production makes us as critical of them as of any other characters, though you can’t help but share their dislike of local girl Natasha who marries their brother. Laura Freeman makes her wonderfully offensive and self-centred once she has overcome her initial shyness after her wonderfully over-the-top first entrance in a garishly sequined outfit.

Simply staged with just chairs (lots of them) as setting, arranged to suggest several rooms and outdoors at the same time, or even the shrubs in the garden, this is a long way from autumn-tinted melancholy Chekhov as British companies used to stage it; it is funny and sharply critical. It is sad to see wasted lives of people like Gareth Fordred’s exhausted Chebutikin but this production doesn’t seek sympathy. It is almost as though it had been written by Brecht.

Three Sisters is being played in repertoire with Fiesco and Blood Wedding. Check exact performance dates on the theatre website www.newdiorama.com

Reviewer: Howard Loxton