Review: Three Sisters cover photo

Review: Three Sisters

Review: Three Sisters cover photo

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging of Three Sisters at the Almeida begins a year before Chekhov’s play normally begins. It opens with the funeral of the siblings’ father, the late General, who brought them to the provincial Russian garrison town where they are now stranded far from their beloved Moscow.

Segueing effortlessly into Irina’s birthday, it is a startling opening, an enormously potent dumb show which reminds how we are all dust and how grief – in its many forms – shapes us. Sometimes it leaves us high and dry on the sands of time and life, like whales who can hear the siren call of the sea but can’t reach it.

The cast of Three Sisters. Photo by Marc Brenner

I have often thought that more than any other Chekhov play, maybe any other play I have ever seen, this is one that you cannot appreciate until you have suffered some disappointments in your own life. One of the things this production does very well is to remind that grief is not just reserved for our deceased love ones, but we carry it with us as a constant companion mourning our lost hopes and dreams, the people we might have been, who we once thought that we would be.

Frecknall’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke was revelatory, pitched in a way that made every emotion twang. It had a consistency which is lacking here in a long evening which has some moments of brilliance to match its opening—the mesmerising whirl of a spinning top; the young people dancing on a winter’s evening in a way that turns internal frustration into external movement and a fantastic sound design from George Dennis.

Ria Zmitrowicz as Irina

When the wind roars through the stove it is like a banshee. I shall long remember Irina whirling like a dervish in the snow. Or the look of pain so intense on the face of Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) that for a moment I wondered whether his death might be viewed as a form of suicide not murder.

But for all these moments of intense lucidity that make us look at the play afresh, there is a lot that doesn’t quite land. Cordelia Lynn has written two of the most disquieting plays of recent years—Lela & Co and One for Sorrow—but her new, overly repetitive version seems marooned somewhere between the 19th century and now. It is often slightly flat and never sharply contemporary.

Which begs the question about why we should care about these three young women moaning that life hasn’t dealt them a fair hand? It is a question that RashDash also asked in its brilliantly entertaining and incisive re-imagining of the play that questioned the way British theatre is in thrall to a particular canon of work largely written by men and which gives men all the best lines.

RashDash's production of Three Sisters at The Yard

Chekhov may have called his play Three Sisters but it’s the men who get to make the big speeches. One does start to wonder what the future would hold for Masha (Pearl Chandra) and Vershinin (Peter McDonald) if they spent twenty years together. Would she be telling him to shut up? Would the philosophising that makes her decide to stay to lunch on Irina’s birthday become a source of irritation?

As RashDash have niftily suggested, this is a play that can indeed speak to the concerns of younger generation, particularly at a time when they are being sold short by their elders. But Frecknall and Lynn leave it frustratingly adrift. Sympathy for these people is strained by their lack of self-knowledge, their inertia and ability to talk endlessly and do very little.

Patsy Ferran as Olga.

There are compensations. When Olga (Patsy Ferran) snaps at Masha to stop talking about her love for Vershinin, it is the first time I have ever realised that it is because she knows that, unlike her sister, she might have found a kind of happiness with the school master Kulygin (Elliot Levey). In the evening’s most distinctive performance Ria Zmitrowicz makes you feel for the babied Irina struggling to grow up, caught between naivety and idealism, and comically appalled by how exhausting and dull work can be while instinctively knowing it is the best shot she’s got. I know that girl. We all do.

Three Sisters runs at The Almeida Theatre until Sat 1 Jun. You can find tickets here.

Tip: If you watch this play, why not share your own response here? You can collect all your theatre going experiences in one place by recording them in your Stagedoor journal.

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Lyn Gardner
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