An air of timelessness perversely pervades Three Sisters at the Almeida. It’s firmly rooted in Russia and was written in 1900 but Chekhov’s reflections on the human condition resonate across the ages. This pensive production is another triumph for director Rebecca Frecknall, confirming the quality she achieved with Summer and Smoke.
An irresistibly captivating, enchanting and ponderous lament.
Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation of Helen Rapport’s translation contributes significantly to the absorbing power of this large work. The language at times is startlingly modern and the style of delivery it encourages often strikingly millennial; yet at other times it retains an old world charm and philosophical earnestness. It has humour that refreshingly and sometimes surprisingly emerges in the midst of the many intense scenes that inevitably arise out the musings and conversations of people who are trapped in their lives. Hildegard Bechtler’s sparse set accords well with this, ensuring that nothing detracts from what is spoken.
On the physical level the three sisters are consigned to living in the small town where their father was stationed in the army. He died a year ago and the sisters long to return to Moscow where they grew up. Quite why they don’t just pack their bags and go is something of a mystery, but even if they are without roots in the village they have restraining commitments. Their relationships, or the lack of them, work and marriage loom large, but their mindsets exercise even greater control. They are people stuck in ruts, rationalising their existences, finding virtue in failed romances, bemoaning their pasts and seeking hope in the future, living with lies, deceits, frustrations and contradictions. They seek to console each other yet also often speak words of brutal honesty.
Following on from her award-winning performance in Summer and Smoke, Patsy Ferran plays Olga, the eldest sister and shows all the strains of being responsible for the other girls and the children in her charge as a schoolteacher. Fate hangs heavily over her as she complains of being constantly tired, a spinster and doomed to become the next headmistress. Masha has different marital problems. Pearl Chanda plays a cynical and bitter sister who has become increasingly distant from her husband; a situation made all the more frustrating by falling in love with a married man. Though not without suitors Irina, the youngest of the girls, allows
Ria Zmitrowicz to play a dreamier sibling whose heart is set on finding fulfilment in Moscow.
There is a also a brother. Freddie Meredith smoothly manages the transition Andrey makes from a confident, aspiring professor, with his sights also set on Moscow, to a downtrodden cuckold, trying to convince himself of his wife Natasha’s goodness, while gambling away the family’s security. Glaswegian Lois Chimimba brings her ringing accent to that role. Initially appearing loving and dutiful she also changes, but as Andrew’s influence diminishes hers grows daily until she becomes the controlling, insensitive ruler of the house. With softer, seductive Irish tones, Peter McDonald plays Alexander, an army officer who has known the sisters since they were young. Also in a difficult marriage with two children and a wife who does all she can to scare him with threats of suicide, he gives a sensitive performance that understandably wins the heart Masha. Meanwhile, Elliot Levey, as her husband Fyodor, through his often humorous social ineptness, dullness as a teacher, flaunting of Latin sayings and annoying devotion, fully demonstrates why Masha looks elsewhere. Also not without his social difficulties, Vassily, another army officer, is shown to be stunningly inept by Alexander Elliot in his professional stage debut. Nikolay a former officer and a philosophising nobleman, is rightly portrayed by Shubham Saraf as the most rational, logical and honourable person around. That is more than can be said for Dr Chebutykin who, in a return to his alcoholism, abandons the town in its hour of need. Alan Williams delightfully reminisces in this role, bringing warmth to yet another flawed individual.
This is tragedy neither on the grand scale nor of the type associated with the classics,
but rather one of people floundering to make sense of their second-rate lives, wishing they could have their time over again in order to spend it differently. Their multiple stories are told as an irresistibly captivating, enchanting and ponderous lament for life as it might have been combined with a naive belief in a brighter future.