The irresistible temptation for a reviewer of Blake Morrison’s new play, We Are Three Sisters, is to analyse which bits are Bronte biography, which elements of Chekhov’s original Three Sisters and which simply products of the Morrison imagination. Reconstructing Chekhov’s play in Haworth in 1848 is an inspired idea, but for every perfect fit between the two there is a misalignment. Ultimately the play succeeds on its own merits as an intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining evening in the theatre.
Possibly the most significant import from Chekhov into the Bronte story concerns Anne, so often the one fetching the coals or making the tea in Bronte adaptations. Three Sisters begins with Irina’s name day, Morrison’s version with Anne’s birthday, and her youthful expectations from life, work and marriage are central: in Rebecca Hutchinson’s true and spirited performance Anne becomes the key figure in the dimming of hope that lies at the heart of the sadness.
Chekhov is most evident in the characters surrounding the Brontes, all given to self-revealing monologues in the finest Russian style. The Doctor (Chebutykin in the original), a robust, increasingly moving John Branwell, is a jolly well- intentioned fellow at the start, but moves through drink and emotional crisis to departure. Similarly the Curate (Marc Parry, proving you can be simultaneously forceful and oleaginous) provides an analogue to “the lovesick major” of the original and Barrie Rutter’s Teacher is a notable addition to Chekhov’s gallery of preening pedants. Most interesting of all is Lydia Robinson, a historical character, Branwell’s mistress in two senses, but taking on the overbearing character of Chekhov’s Natasha, a performance of toe- curling snobbery and insensitivity by Becky Hindley, probably a gross slander on the original Mrs Robinson, but great theatre.
The Brontes are by and large presented more naturalistically. The relationships between the sisters and with their father and, initially, their brother suggest a lively, affectionate family life. Catherine Kinsella’s nuanced performance as Charlotte gives warmth to the character while still conveying the wish to control and Sophia Di Martino, alternating between silence and impassioned utterance, is a wholly convincing Emily. Duggie Brown is engagingly eccentric as Patrick Bronte, anything but the Victorian patriarch, and Eileen O’Brien’s down-to-earth Tabby has the best of the putdowns as well as contemplating her likely dismissal in the manner of ageing Chekhov servants. As Branwell Gareth Cassidy copes bravely and resourcefully with the fact that the Bronte brother’s life was always a bit over the top!
It has always been my contention that Northern Broadsides’ productions are best viewed at the Viaduct. In this case I’m not so sure. Jessica Worrall’s set looks good, but there are problems with sight-lines. Barrie Rutter’s production, as vigorous and theatrical as ever, doesn’t always flow through the space (one embarrassingly missed entrance didn’t help). As so often with Broadsides, I feel the need for a second visit in a different venue.