Reviewed – 19th June 2019
“The production is visually stunning and the action carefully choreographed, with clear lines of symmetry throughout”
Written in 1900, and first performed in 1901, Three Sisters is one of Chekhov’s best known plays. If you’re a theatre lover, chances are you will have seen it performed at least once. What you almost certainly won’t have seen is the play as it was written, in Russian. (Don’t worry, there are surtitles). The Maly Drama Theatre production is in London from St. Petersburg, and plays at the Vaudeville for ten days; it is, quite simply, the best Chekhov this reviewer has seen in thirty years of theatre-going.
The play takes as its subject the lives of three orphaned sisters – Olga, Masha and Irina – who, together with their brother Andrey, live with two old family retainers – Anfisa and Ferapont – in provincial Russia; the family having decamped from the sisters’ beloved Moscow eleven years previously. The action, such as it is, takes place over the course of several years, during which Andrey marries, Irina is courted by various different suitors and Masha has an intense extra-marital romance with one of the visiting soldiers, Vershinin. Ultimately, the soldiers leave, and the family is left adrift. The sisters realise that they will never leave and that their dream of returning to Moscow will never come to pass.
Three Sisters is, of course, a tale of lost hopes, but it is also a hymn to the continuous and eternal flow of life itself; Lev Dodin’s brilliant direction ensures that we never lose sight of this central Chekhovian ambiguity, and that the play, and the characters, steer clear of the mawkish self-indulgence with which they can sometimes be tarnished. Dodin steers with a steady hand, and, with the aid of pitch-perfect lighting and set design (credit here to Damir Ismagilov and Alexander Borovsky) the arc of the play is incredibly clear. The house, quite rightly, has a powerful presence here, and the simple device of the frontage moving ever further downstage as the action proceeds, cleverly underlines the family’s inability to escape.
Dodin likes to paint stage pictures. The production is visually stunning and the action carefully choreographed, with clear lines of symmetry throughout. This stylisation never seems heavy-handed however, continually off-set as it is by the warmth and truth of his talented cast. Hearing the play in its original language frees up the humanity of Chekhov’s characters. Language shapes sensibility, and the sound of spoken Russian lends a humour and warmth to these people that is impossible to capture in translation.
This is not to take away from the enormous skill of the cast. The three sisters themselves – Irina Tychinina as Olga, Ksenia Rappoport as Masha and Ekaterina Tarasova as Irina – are stupendous. Each is perfectly defined against the other, and each woman seems almost to physically transform over the course of the action. This is true too of Ekaterina Kleopina’s Natasha, thoroughly convincing in her journey from gauche intruder to self-satisfied matron. Oleg Ryazantzev charms as the hapless Baron, and Sergey Vlasov’s Kuligin is the perfect mix of provinicial pomposity and tender heartedness. Igor Chernevich’s Vershinin perhaps lacks a bit of Moscow glamour – necessary to attract Masha and work against his lugubrious take on life – but this is a niggle when taking on board the excellent work of the ensemble throughout.
Although the pace does slacken a bit after the interval, and the production loses a bit of drive, the two hours and forty five minutes seems like half that, which is quite something for a surtitled piece of work. All in all, it’s a consummate evening at the theatre. A perfect introduction to Chekhov if you don’t know his work, and an illumination of his genius if you do.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography courtesy Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg
Vaudeville Theatre until 29th June
Previously reviewed at this venue: