Anton Chekhov’s 1901 chilly Russian masterpiece Three Sisters has inspired many a playwright for over a century – and Lifelike Theatre’s writer/director Ben Clare is no exception. His new play Sisters takes inspiration from Chekhov’s original plot and characters, reinterpreting the story ‘for our time’ – though Clare is quick to note that his play is by no means a faithful adaptation and does not seek to recreate Chekhov. Set over the years 2010, 2011, and 2012, the play tells the story of siblings Olivia, Mia and Evie as they face the trials and tribulations of modern life on a cold, remote Scottish island.
Sisters is billed as a contemporary drama, yet the production skids down a slippery slope of outdated design choices from the very first scene. Heavy oak furniture, plush armchairs, a doting elderly housekeeper, sit-down dinners and plain, flowing ankle-length skirts cannot help but bring to mind a Downton Abbey Christmas special more than anything else. Clare’s script suffers from a similar sense of confusion, blustering in its attempts to integrate conventions of modern-day language into the characters’ dialogue. Abrupt accusations of ‘gayness’ feel shoehorned in at unnecessary moments, whilst younger sister Evie dreams of opening her own fashion store on Ebay or Facebook – surely the sort of website choices only a baffled grandfather might assume young adults cite as part of these life ambitions.
Equally out-of-place are the sisters’ constant frustrations with the bitterly restricted circumstances of their lives; frustrations that, in frosty Victorian England perhaps, would make perfect sense. But the 21st century offers little plausible opportunity for female suppression – resulting in frustration for the audience more than the sisters themselves. Marriage, in particular, is used in true Jane Austen style as a pathway to a better life; the possibility of younger sister Evie returning to her beloved birthplace of London is presented as being viable only once she has found a suitable husband to take her there. Sisters seems unaware that it is set in a time of women who can, in fact, drive – and one cannot help but wonder whether Clare ever quite made up his mind which time period to set his play in at all.
Yet, for all its faults, Sisters is not without merit. A solid cast manages to pull the show through the storm, turning even the most minor of roles into a mature and memorable performance. Naomi Marsden is exceptional as the middle sister Mia, whose panic-stricken breakdown towards the show’s conclusion is enough to move one to tears. Icy-tongued, bad-tempered, adulterous and deceitful; Mia is not an easy character to empathise with, but Marsden plays her with a cynical humour and raw depth of emotion that both engages and entrances. The character of Colin – Mia’s doting husband – is portrayed with tragic vulnerability by James Furling, providing a telling antidote to his unfaithful wife’s cold snap of a character. Grace Line drifts around the stage in an oddly mild portrayal of villainess Stella, employing a dodgy sometimes-Scottish accent to inspire a sniff of irritation rather than outright hatred from her audience – but David Howard compensates in his relatively thankless role as ex-army doctor Carter, allowing the character’s gradual descent into drunkenness and depression to snowball at just the right speed.
The performance gets its skates on at around the mid-way point, focussing attention on a vast amount of engaging character development that can only be admired – whilst Colin Wood’s understated use of lighting adds a professional touch to each and every scene. An inevitably bleak ending leaves the sour taste of dissatisfaction in one’s mouth, but that is only to be expected; Chekhov’s conclusion to Three Sisters is no less dismal.
Against all the odds, Sisters just about pulls through. The show’s quality performances can only be commended, but it is a shame that even they cannot quite melt away each and every production flaw. In spite of everything, Sisters demonstrates great potential, though its identity as a ‘contemporary’ piece remains a blizzard of confusion even to the show’s final scene. Perhaps Russia, 1901 is in fact the place where this piece truly belongs. Perhaps that is where it should return to. Perhaps then, it would indeed stand a good chance of doing Anton Chekhov’s work proud.