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Three Sisters (Union Theatre, London): Review

three sisters When shall we three meet again? Celine Abrahams (left), Ivy Corbin (centre), and Molly Crookes (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Nihilism doesn’t come as slick or as sumptuous than in Tracy Lett’s version and Phil Willmott’s production of Three Sisters.

In rural turn-of-the-century Russia, a three well-off sisters and their brother pine for their vibrant cosmopolitan life in Moscow after they were transferred to the small town with their military father eleven years prior. Will they ever realise their dreams in a town that’s “beneath” them, breaking free of the shackles they’ve made for themselves? And will the three sisters ever make it to Moscow?

three sisters

Snow patrol. Hugo Nicholson (left) and Tom Malmed (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Adaptation

2016 was a bit much, wasn’t it? So what better way to start 2017 than Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters! Having studied the play for A-Level I had grown to loath it, although appreciating that Chekhov’s nihilistic realism was a hammer (and sickle) to the face of 19th century European theatre. But after a decade of therapy and musicals, I felt it was time to take a shot of vodka and venture into rural Russia once more for theatre’s arguably most famous trio of young Slavic ladies.

What prompted me to try and reacquaint myself with Three Sisters is that the version being performed at the Union Theatre is an award-winning one by Tracy Letts: the Pulitzer playwright behind celebrated plays such as Superior Donuts and BugBut Letts interestingly doesn’t do any “bold reworking”, and instead keeps the setting and the time period as per Chekhov’s original without forcing any modern gimmick into Three Sisters. So what life and energy can Letts breathe into what is thoroughly a depressing and soul-crushing play?

The answer is a surprising amount, but without taking away any of Chekhov’s vast complexity of character and damning satire. What Letts does is work on the language and adjusts the text to add more pace. Anyone who’s familiar with the older translation will know that not only does the language feel particularly antiquated, but the thick depression of the play can be so drawn out that it drags to the point where it’s melodramatic, overwrought, and annoyingly bleak.

Letts’ end result is a script that feels contemporary, fresh, and pacey. You soon forget that Three Sisters is over a century old and originally in Russian, and instead you could almost mistake it for a brand new play written by a modern playwright. Yes, people who know the original translation inside out might be upset of some adjustment and omissions, like Solyony’s grating “cheep cheep”. But when it’s replaced with characters ejaculating retorts like “who the fuck cares?”, the trade off is certainly worth it as Three Sisters sings, making you suddenly click much easier into the lives, misfortunes, and misadventures of our fated three: getting right underneath their whims and pathos that is sometimes obstructed by the language and heavy energy. You actually become incredible involved and transfixed by these fading, shattered lives that is surprisingly compelling: something that anyone who has been forced to pick through a playtext might never have thought possible!

Direction & Production

Phil Willmott’s direction absolutely reflects the pace that Lett’s is trying to go for in Three Sisters. Nothing is left to go stale as Willmott ensures there’s always something happening. Even between moments of dialogue, there’s noise where characters ad lib in casual interactions, with this bustle sometimes underscoring actual dialogue. It all feels real, impressively naturalistic, and immediate. Making this even better is the decisions to perform Three Sisters in the round, which makes brilliant use of what could be quite an awkward space at the Union Theatre. The large stairway to the rigging becomes the house’s grand staircase, and characters even burst in and out of an off-stage dinning room at one point. Three Sisters suddenly become an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary, especially with Willmott’s constant buzz of goings on, giving it a real feel of vibrant reality juxtaposed against the homely, dusky set.

Further helping this is some excellent use of ambient sound from sound designer Sebastian Atterbury. This means Three Sisters’ dialogue and resonance never drops dead in the theatre’s acoustic, giving and aural sense of energy to scenes like the fire at the beginning of Act II, that helps to keep Three Sisters lively to the ear too. Helping this is Sean Gleason’s great lighting design that is most impressive when it plays shadows and dimness. This turns the performance space for Three Sisters into something dense and miserable as the characters themselves, and the result is as atmospheric as they are visual.

Then there are little touches that really exploit the in-the-round set-up, like using characters facing different directions to not just ensure that each side of the audience gets a good look-in on the action, but also to physically illustrate personal detachment and distance from other characters. No matter what side of the theatre you’re sat on, you get a good dose of action. You might notice others react to a little nuance or glance that you’ve missed, but it’s never to the point where you feel you’ve been neglected by your choice of seating.

three sisters

What’s up, Doc? Molly Crookes (left) and JP Turner (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

There is a couple of slightly stilted performances at points of Three Sisters, but I don’t feel like they’re detrimental enough to subtract a star, even though these may be the only thing to actually critique I can find. Otherwise, the entire cast give great performances. Theatre veterans JP Turner as Chebutykin and Caorinna Marlowe as Anfisa give warm and lively performances, showing their vintage is by no means slowing them down. Indeed, they are sometimes so fluid and full of character they upstage some of the younger cast. Ivy Corbin as Masha, Molly Crookes as Irina, and Celine Abrahams as Olga, also have a wonderful love/hate dynamic between them that plays on their close-knit bond despite the constant rubs and fractures they encounter between them and other characters. Their brilliant as independent characters, but that link between them is always there, even if the love isn’t.

Stand out performances come from Abrahams, who, playing the oldest of the three sisters, really commands a presence. But Abrahams also gives a sense of complexity to her grief, from the desperation behind constantly needing to be the centre of attention out of bitterness for her single status, to desperately trying to hold her siblings back from the edge of reason with stark realistic advice. She isn’t someone as doomed as the rest of them, and it is through her own resentment she forces herself to be the glue that stops everything from falling apart, absolutely coming into her own during the final, crushing scenes.

Furthermore, Ashley Russell as General Vershinin matches his muscular silver fox handsomeness with an absolutely alluring charm that transcends both gusto and personal gremlins: it’s not difficult to see why Masha is so transfixed with him. But behind this, you also get a sense of the real yearning and passion contrasted against his love for his daughters and the sense of both military and domestic duty. Russell is so masterfully conflicted, enigmatic, and beguiling, that if you didn’t have “daddy issues” before Three Sisters, you’ll certainly have them after.

Verdict

Do not see this if you’re in need of some new year’s cheer: this is perhaps the most depressing thing you could ever witness. However, do see this as a masterful take on an infamously dreary play, combing an inspired version with top-notch direction, making you realise just why Three Sisters is as seminal as it’s said to be, and far more gripping than you thought it could be.

Three Sisters plays at the Union Theatre, London, SE1 0LR, until 4 February 2017. Tickets are £15. To book, visit www.uniontheatre.biz.