The Orange Tree is hosting an adventurous and indeed intriguing project over the next few months. Chekhov's classic Three Sisters is being presented in tandem with Reza De Wet's newly minted sequel Three Sisters Two, which looks at the lives of these Russian siblings from the vantage point of 25 years later.
Such a scheme has inherent novelty appeal, and many will surely want to see if De Wet can capture the flavour of the original. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the work of the South African playwright hasn't got much to live up to as this production of Three Sisters does little justice to Chekhov at his best. This is a playwright whose subtle grasp of the fine line between laughter and pathos demands acting of the highest calibre if it's to be properly realised. Without such nuance, much is lost. That's exactly what happens here.
Chekhov himself apparently viewed this play in comic terms because none of its characters display clearly heroic behaviour or are blighted by any specific tragic flaw. They are simply people struggling for fulfilment in a world that often thwarts their every aspiration.
Margarete Forsyth's elegant set evocatively conjures the gracious world that the Prozorov sisters inhabit at the dawn of the 20th century. As the play opens, it's the youngest sister Irina's "name day" and the sense of anticipation is palpable. Poised on the threshold of adulthood, Irina is full of idealistic hopes mirrored in the belief that "Man must work by the sweat of his brow whatever his class, and that should make up the whole meaning and purpose of his life and happiness."
Although both her sisters, Masha and Olga, are already disenchanted by the way their lives have evolved - Olga stultified by teaching, Masha bound by an unsatisfactory marriage - they still nurture hopes of a better life, and by the play's conclusion, can declare "Life isn't finished for us yet.. Maybe, if we wait a little longer we shall find out why we live, why we suffer."
Carol Rocamora's crisp, succinct translation works well but tauter direction from Orange Tree artistic director Sam Walters would be helpful. Though there are glimmers from Octavia Walters of Irina's optimistic spirit, neither Anna Hewson or Cate Debenham-Taylor manage to persuasively convince as Olga or Masha. Without such authenticity in these pivotal roles, it's impossible to properly engage with the characters, and this lack of empathy is fatal to the play's overall credibility.
A pity that such an interesting project should get off onto such unstable, and disappointing, footing.
- Amanda Hodges