It is sometimes claimed that you can’t take liberties with Chekhov the way you can with Shakespeare. The dismal pre-Revolutionary Russian is too specific in his portrayals of a decaying middle class falling apart in their country houses.
This production is here to render all that complete nonsense.
The entire depth and width of the Royal stage are laid bare, complete with fully visible lighting rigs, sound desks and stage managers, then crammed with furniture, props and assorted stuff at the start of Act One, inside the house of the titular three sisters.
By the end of the play, everything’s been literally stripped away to leave a bare black space with just a swing to evoke the estate’s garden.
The use of space, transparency and physical things is just part of the inventive, mind-shifting approach of this co-production by the Lyric, Hammersmith, and theatre company Filter, which is nearing the end of its national tour.
Other trademarks include the imaginative and evocative use of sound, with microphones strategically placed to capture whispered exchanges or offstage conversations. One particular highlight is the breathtaking boiling of a kettle. And that’s a sentence you don’t expect to read too often.
Among the performances, Poppy Miller, Romola Garai and Clare Dunne are outstanding as the sisters, each carving out a living variant of the genetic roots that bind them together and all ranging confidently in emotional intensity.
Among the many hangers-on circulating around the family, Jonathan Broadbent offers a nicely drawn suitor, Paul Brennen a meticulous schoolmaster and John Lightbody an appropriately dashing military type with buckles to swash.
Occasionally, the delivery of Christopher Hampton’s fine translation feels a little rushed for a company so dedicated to the lyricism of the language, but the overall spectacle and the underlying disintegration are acutely portrayed, giving a fascinating modern twist on a century-old classic.