Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s production of Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov’s poignant exploration of human hearts in rebellion against the meaninglessness and hopelessness of it all, arrives in London steeped in spare elegance and wistful violins. First performed in 1901, the play revolves around three sisters from one of the fading families of the Russian aristocracy, marooned in an enervating provincial town. They distract themselves with the company and petty pretensions of local teachers and soldiers posted in the area whilst dreaming of the elusive day they can return to Moscow and its high society.
Performed in the original Russian with English surtitles it can sometimes be a little tricky for non-Russian speakers to keep up with some of the quicker exchanges as, with idle desperation, the eddying group of characters extol the virtues of work, philosophy and progress in giving shape to their lives. Missing a line or two here and there rarely matters, however, as what is not said is at least as important as what is, with much of the wonderfully complex characters articulately conveyed by the eloquent physical performances across the cast.
This counterpoint of speech and movement (or, at times, stasis) is crucial in charging exchanges, which might on the surface seem tangentially abstract, with the crazy pendulum-swings of emotion that lie behind the varying self-defences of fatuous optimism or venial pragmatism. Every exuberant interaction is tempered by the sneaking suspicion that we are lying to ourselves about the things we hold dearest, that all our most deeply held beliefs are based on an illusion of meaning that we dare not examine too closely for fear of shattering it.
Particularly moving are the scenes between Masha (played captivatingly by Ksenia Rappoport) and General Vershinin (Igor Chernevich) the one man who arrives in the town who can stimulate her precocious, unnourished intellect. Her fierce vitality spills through the cracks in the armour of contempt for the world in which she clads herself whilst his gruff gentleness leaks through his cloak of melancholy as they torment themselves with glimpses of a passion so lacking in their respective torpid, if not entirely loveless, marriages.
Indeed, such unguarded bittersweet moments as these, which express the aching to cross the chasms isolating each character from the others, are close to the heart of the play. Particularly powerful is director Lev Dodin’s staging of the moments in which various characters seek extramarital solace whilst their abandoned spouses watch on without any real jealousy or surprise, only a kind of sad sympathy. In place of the revelation of secret desires we might expect, comes instead the more uncomfortable realisation that they were never really secret, but rather collectively unspoken. It turns out that it is after all ourselves, and not others, from whom we have been occluding the rawest depths of our ragged hearts.
All of this action is overhung by the plain, looming wooden façade of Alexander Borovsky’s set, hollowed-out windows riddling its fading splendour and drawing each character deeper into their individual black holes. With the whole structure advancing implacably, act on act, towards the audience, we are intensely aware of just how fragile and urgent the splash of torchlight is in which we illuminate our brief dance on the bare boards of a desperately indifferent universe.
Three Sisters is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the Nimax Theatres website.