Cheek by Jowl’s Three Sisters sets a standard by which all future English-language productions of Chekhov - and of this play in particular - will be judged.
Declan Donnellan takes the tragicomedy at a fast pace: his Russian cast suggests that most of these characters are not just eager to be somewhere else doing different things but are diligently forging their individual destinies and not passive victims of temperament and circumstance. Their reiteration of the need to be actively doing something worthwhile is the fulcrum of their whole existence.
We are shown that the sisters' desire to return to Moscow is not merely nostalgic wishful-thinking but an essential part of their personalities and a commitment to contribute to a wider community. Its thwarting is more than destructive, it is totally annihilating - a massacre of the spirit which it seems cruel to watch.
Evgenia Dmitrieva as Olga, Irina Grineva as Masha and Nelly Uvarova as Irina don't just act the title characters they are these people. There's one marvellous moment in the third act when Dmitrieva and Grineva rear up like a pair of cobras in an Egyptian tomb painting of the soul being judged in defence of their old nurse, Galina Morachyova, against the spite of their vulgar sister-in-law Natalia (Ekaterina Sibiryakova).
Masha's own tragedy - in love with Vershinin (Alexander Feklistov) while trapped in a loveless and, as this production demonstrates, abusive marriage - is not allowed to dominate. Olga's likely spinsterhood and Irina's truncated engagement as well as brother Andrey’s (Alexei Dadonov) decline into alcoholic cuckoldry are all given proper weight.
This slightly fades the young officers frequenting the Prozorov house into a sort of background frieze. Tuzenbakh’s (Andrei Kuzichev) successful courtship of Irina and Solenyi’s (Andrey Merzlikin) rejection by her may be the occasion for the sisters' final acceptance of loss but it's not the cause. That is present at the start of the play in the formal, positive photographic pose of brother and three sisters. It's negative is at the end, as the regiment leaves, the sisters wave and the band plays on.
See this production. You won't regret it.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at Cambridge Arts Theatre)