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Three Sisters by Anton Chekov in a new version by Ross McGregor

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Ross McGregor produced by Arrows & Traps Theatre
Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Ross McGregor produced by Arrows & Traps Theatre

Of course, it’s more than a little gloomy: it’s a Chekhov play. And this production of Three Sisters is undeniably faithful to the widely available translations from the original Russian. The proverbial devil is in the detail, however, and it will not have gone unnoticed by purists that in this ‘new version’, for instance, the mention of Irina’s (Victoria Llewellyn) ‘name day’ is missing, substituted for ‘birthday’. As the said purists will tell us, it was still the tradition in Russia (prior to Red October in 1917, that is) to pay more attention to the date of the saint on which a person was named after than the date on which a person was born.

But if such details are considered superfluous for this production, I wonder why so many others were retained: the running time comes in at 2 hours 45 minutes, compared to the 2014 Southwark Playhouse production which came in at 2 hours 30 minutes, and the 2017 Union Theatre production, even shorter, at 2 hours 10 minutes. Here, the set befits the trappings of the society in which the three sisters (the aforementioned Irina, plus Cornelia Baumann’s Olga and Claire Bowman’s Masha) find themselves in, with translucent scrims partially obscuring the dining room behind the front room. The play plodded along slowly enough for me to recognise, at length, how well blocked the production is: when the many family members and acquaintances are all gathered for Irina’s party, they are positioned within a semi-circle. It’s a layout too perfect to be realistic, but this is drama, y’see.

Elements of the storyline have not aged well – in these days of mass transit and relative freedom, not being able to ‘go to Moscow’ is difficult to relate to, whether literally or metaphorically. Alexander Vershinin (Toby Wynn-Davies) has made it to this remote part of Russia from Moscow (for reasons explained in the narrative), so the journey is quite possible. Throw in Andrei (Spencer Lee Osborne), brother of the three sisters (already making the title rather dubious) and the woman he marries, Natasha (Hannah Victory), and miscellaneous military figures, plus the help, Anfisa (Susan Baskerville) and a porter, Ferapont (Allan Stirland) and the story gets more complicated than perhaps it strictly needs to be.

The portrayal of these last two characters seems outdated, as though all people of pensionable age are so doddery they really ought to be in a secure facility. The outsider Natasha, meanwhile, wins out, getting the family home by marrying its owner, though her manner is so abrasive one cannot help but feel it is a triumph barely, if at all, deserved. The inclusion of songs, while demonstrating some skilled actor-musicianship, ultimately add nothing to the plot, becoming the very worst kind of theatrical songs – the ones that leave the audience waiting for them to end so the story can continue.

This production has tinkered with the text and would have done better if it left it alone completely, or otherwise have undertaken a significant overhaul, however risky. There’s an ‘intimacy director’ (Yarit Dor) named in the show’s credits, an interesting inclusion given that most characters don’t get along with one another and there’s a prevailing sense of ‘please don’t touch me, kindly leave me alone’ that permeates the show almost incessantly. There is, at least, the banter of Fyodor Kulygin (Stephen MacNeice), married to Masha, providing some comic relief. But the desperation of the sisters isn’t as convincing as it should be – unhappy as they are with their lot, there could have been more of a sense of helplessness and yearning for something better.

For diehard Chekhov lovers, it’s worth seeing. Everyone else can take it or leave it.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

In a rural backwater, three sisters dream of a better life and of returning to the Moscow of their childhood.
Irina longs for purpose, Masha for passion and Olga for some peace.
Set across four life-defining years, Chekhov’s tragicomic masterpiece explores the hopes, loves and sacrifices of three brilliant young women and the people they encounter. When society is falling apart at the seams, can people still go on living, loving and laughing?

Three Sisters
by Anton Chekov in a new version by Ross McGregor
presented by Arrows & Traps Theatre
Tuesday 20 March to Saturday 14 April 2018
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH


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