Fresh from the smouldering success of Summer and Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall reignites Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic at the Almeida Theatre. Best known for his depictions of inter-family politics, the heavy-hitting Russian playwright is here reworked for a modern audience in a smart new adaptation by Cordelia Lynn.
Lynn’s script retains much of the original. It is philosophical and dense – but not so much as to be inaccessible. The plot is digestible enough, following several pivotal years in the lives of the three Polytov sisters: Olga (Patsy Ferran), Masha (Pearl Chanda) and Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz) who are slowly stifled by their middle-class existence in a garrison town too far away from Moscow.
The sisters are the focal point around which the surrounding characters whirl – sometimes literally. Chanda is magnetic as the wryly listless Masha whose stupor is broken by an illicit extra-marital love affair. Zmitrowicz perfectly charts the youngest sister Irina’s fade from childlike optimism to disillusionment and despair. Ferran’s Olga is the most likable as the selfless stalwart and family lynchpin. Together they lounge about and quarrel with fully authentic sisterly familiarity. Their individual identities within the family and character arcs are portrayed with skill and sensitivity. And then there’s the disappointing brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith) – always placed deliberatively at a remove from the rest of the family.
Frecknall is adept at using negative space and depth to convey the equilibrium of complex familial relationships, and at melding sound (by George Dennis) with visual elements to craft intricate, magical moments. One such moment strikes early in the play: Andrey stands, against a brick wall, in a separate and darker space to the rest of ensemble, who fall silent save for the mournful tones of a violin. Only Andrey is not playing the violin; it is suspended against the wall about a foot away from him. the strangeness and separateness, stillness and distance conveyed in this moment is sheer genius.
Though written over a hundred years ago, the themes explored by Three Sisters feel fresh and easy to relate to. Everyone is in love with the wrong person, hates their job and/or feels like they’ve wasted any potential they might have had. Frecknall’s staging of Three Sisters manages to obsess over the passing of time without being anchored to any particular era. The effect is one of surreality; a rosy production design from Hildegard Bechtler that is at once both retro and modern-feeling, carried through cohesively with Laura Hunt’s gorgeous costumes. The resulting aesthetic makes the whole thing feel like watching a memory; it emanates a nostalgia and a longing for the way things never really were.
The slow pace indulges in maybe one too many lingering gazes or tortured sighs and the three-hour running time is enough to dissuade the masses. Nevertheless, this production rewards and enthrals those who remain engaged: it is a luminous slice of miserable domestic idyll.
Three Sisters is playing the Almeida Theatre until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website.