Three Sisters

Anya Reiss has form when it comes to adaptations. Her version of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a co-production between Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, continues its tour this spring. Her adaptation of The Seagull, meanwhile, was recently revived by the Library Theatre Company at the Lowry, having premiered at the Southwark Playhouse at the end of 2012. Now, in between a new job writing for EastEnders, Reiss returns to the Southwark Playhouse with a new version of Three Sisters.

This is Chekhov with Christmas jumpers, iPads and baby wipes. To account for the isolation of the Russian original, Reiss’s three sisters Olga (Olivia Lallinan), Irina (Holliday Granger) and Masha (the brilliant Emily Taaffe) pine for London in the British ex-pat community of an unspecified Middle Eastern country, from which the British army are about to withdraw. To this end, it reminded me of Sir Nicholas Hytner’s seminal Othello at the National Theatre last year, with the inert aftermath of war once again proving fertile ground for domestic drama. The problem with modernisation of this kind, though, is one of context. As Michael Billington noted in his review of Hytner’s production, “once you’re into a world of laptops and strip lighting, it’s hard to believe Othello would be deluded by the absence of a spotted handkerchief”.

While Othello’s handkerchief stretched believability in a modern day setting, here the fundamental constraints under which Chekhov’s three sisters lived simply don’t exist anymore. Would they really be so reliant on their brother Andrey (Thom Tuck) for financial support? Would Masha really stay with a husband whom she didn’t love? Why don’t they just go to London? Some would say, of course, that they don’t go because the play is about not getting there. Just as Godot never arrives in Beckett’s drama, so Moscow isn’t reached in Chekhov’s. Nevertheless, in an age of wanderlust and budget airlines, you can’t help but wonder why they don’t just up sticks and head for the big smoke.

I also think she’s missing a trick with her change of setting. Apart from the occasional sound of military aircraft overhead and the mention of “a small terrorist attack” in London, Reiss fails to make use of what is quite a bold piece of geographical re-contextualisation. Set, as it is, in the Middle East, I would have liked to have seen Reiss embrace the socio-cultural predicaments of that context and impose similar social constraints on her three sisters. In this context, Natasha’s invasion of the house could be loaded with a very different set of implications.

Aside from these concerns, Reiss’s version succeeds brilliantly in relocating Chekhov’s existential ramblings for a modern age. As her Andrey puts it, this is a world in which everyone is just “sleeping and eating and shitting and drinking and working and dying”. For me, the production was at its best when it embraced this more modern sensibility, with a riotous karaoke rendition of Pulp’s Common People being a particularly memorable example. There are also some cracking one liners. Indeed, if we learnt anything from Reiss’s early work it was the ease with which she handles fraught, claustrophobic domesticity. She puts that skill to good use here with the crowded early acts providing ample opportunity for bitching and backstabbing, usually, as you’d expect, directed towards the suitably irritating Natasha (Emily Dobbs).

Nevertheless, this adaptation must be viewed in the context of what is a growing portfolio of adaptation work for Reiss, particularly given that her version of The Seagull for this theatre was criticised in some quarters for the slightness of her intervention. In a recent interview for the British Theatre Guide podcast, Reiss gives a lucid insight into how she went about adapting Chekhov’s play. Rather than adapting sentence by sentence as you might expect, Reiss explained that she would read several versions of a given page to give her a “blue print” of the action, before going away and writing her own version. In doing so, she endeavours to capture the spirit of Chekhov, but in her own voice. With a number of adaptions under her belt, I only wish Reiss had the courage to move beyond the blueprint and allow her own voice to take the ascendancy. All of which entails that for all its promise, this is an adaptation that fails to truly ignite.

Three Sisters is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Annabel Vere.