It seems no season is complete without a clutch of Seagulls, a Cherry Orchard or two, or an Uncle Vanya, and there’s no doubt Chekov’s current popularity would blow the imagination of the nineteenth century doctor-turned-writer. All of this, though, prompts the question: can we have too much of a good thing? Some directors resort to drastic measures to stand out from the crowd, forcing the plays into bizarre settings or pushing the characters beyond the text; others stick closely to the “original”, building clunky, realistic sets and using period dress.
This version by The Faction, a company that prides itself on its repertoire of classical plays, is somewhere between the two, refusing to take any big risks and instead focusing on small, comical adjustments which focus on the gap between the text and the modern context of the production. The samovar, Chebutikin’s name-day gift to Irina, becomes a boxed electric kettle, while Natasha, the local woman destined to become Andrei’s wife, turns up to the birthday dinner in a short sequined bodycon dress and birthday sash as if ready for a hen party. These minor innovations are entertaining, but it’s clear that the text is meant to speak for itself, and thus there’s little to distract from the sense of déjá-vu, or at worst boredom, even if this was Chekov’s favourite theme.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the production is poor. The acting is very sound throughout, with highlights in Laura Freeman’s bossy, tasteless Natasha scheming to gain domestic control, Kate Sawyer’s constantly-stressed teacher Olga, and her work-driven sister, Irina (Elizabeth Twells). Jonny McPherson’s Vershinin, the army officer from Moscow, is a living-room philosopher whose shiny enthusiasm for his ideas suggests a subtle sense of sarcasm or disbelief in the magnificent future to come. Touches like filling the stage with chairs are clever; their emptiness and unused potential seems to reflect the emptiness of the sisters, as is the boredom marked out by the spinning top, another of Irina’s gifts.
All in all, The Faction’s take on Chekov is rather like Christmas pudding at this time of year; if you’ve seen a lot of it recently you won’t find anything particularly appetising here and there’s little to distinguish it from any other of its kind. Three Sisters is, though, a thoroughly decent production which would make an ideal introduction to the play, and one that might even sparkle if there weren’t so many other Chekovs hanging around.
Three Sisters is at the New Diorama Theatre until 23 February, although performance dates and times vary. For exact dates and more information visit the New Diorama website.