There is a risk when staging ‘Three Sisters’ that the ennui on stage can sometimes seep out into the audience too.
That risk is quickly dissipated in this enthralling production by Moscow theatre company Sovremennik. It deftly, naturally, mesmerisingly draws you in to the sisters’ claustrophobic provincial world, leaving you utterly engaged. And it achieves this despite the potentially distracting fact that the play is performed in Russian, with English surtitles on screens on each side of the stage.
That Russian-ness is the joy of this production: hearing Chekhov in the original Russian, performed by a Russian ensemble with their innate understanding of the characters’ follies and foibles and humanity. Forget past productions where the drama is forced, the philosophising false, the humour faintly embarrassing and the inaction of the characters ultimately irksome. Here, there is depth, compassion, humour, despair, a fully rounded world with fully rounded characters whose tragedy is to be born into a stultifying society on the cusp of change. The backdrop of approaching revolution is hinted at, leaving the characters bewildered at the changes and floundering for a role.
That sense of bewilderment is reflected in the revolving stage which at moments of tension starts spinning. The almost reckless speed it rotates graphically illustrates a world out of control, leaving the characters disorientated and the audience too on edge.
The sisters themselves grow into their roles, and the change in them over the course of the play (several years) is poignant. Irina (the youngest) opens the play on her name day. Played by Victoria Romanenko, she shines with youthful charm and idealism. She has a desire to grasp life and live it to the full. Her escape and fulfilment will come, she says in a speech full of passion, through work. Yet by the second act, work has worn her down, sucking all the energy and life out of her. By the end, when she reluctantly agrees to marry (though she does not love him) the worthy but plain Baron Tuzenbach (played by a far-too-handsome Shamil Khamatov), there is a weary sense that she has reached a dead end and he is her only escape out of it.
Masha, the middle sister, is married to school-teacher Kulygin, and actress Alyona Babenko portrays well enough the mind-numbing boredom and irritation she feels whenever he’s around. But it is in her affair with Vershinin (Vladislav Vetrov) that she comes alive, and on stage they together powerfully evoke the passion and tension that overwhelm them.
Vershinin’s naive belief that the sisters’ (and others like them) goodness and education will have a civilising influence on future generations is one of the themes of the play: ‘in two or three hundred years, life on this earth will be unimaginably beautiful and wonderful’. It is an optimistic counterpoint to the bleakness of the present.
The eldest sister, Olga, is dutiful, hard-working and sensible, a rather uninspiring role that actress Olga Drozdova (her voice at times lacking projection) dutifully fulfils. It is in the final despairing scene, with home, love, and hope all gone, that the bonds between the sisters feel strongest in a touching piece of ensemble acting.
There is humour too amidst the pathos, the ‘laughter through tears’ characteristic of Chekhov. Cherbutykin, the alcoholic doctor, is both funny and sad, played with excellent comic timing. Captain Solony, Irina’s rejected suitor, seems initially humorous but odd; as time goes on, the oddness develops into something menacingly sinister. Also deserving of mention is the family’s elderly maid, Anfisa, played with strength and pathos by an equally elderly Yelena Millioti.
‘Sovremennik’ means contemporary in Russian. There was little in this production that felt contemporary or new: this was ‘Three Sisters’ much as it would have been when first staged in 1901 at the Moscow Arts Theatre. Some might expect the Sovremennik Theatre to endeavour to bring modern insights, breathe new life into its staging. This production, directed by 83 year old Galina Volchek, a founding member of the Sovremennik Theatre, feels as if it’s been around a long time. But for this reviewer, the spirit of Chekhov shone clear and bright through it, and Chekhov’s dream of a beautiful future despite a desperate present still touches modern audience’s hearts.