"Hope, despair, vodka," says the poster, and there’s no messing about in the production, either, which marks another fascinating collaboration between director Sean Holmes and Filter, “deconstructing” Chekhov’s classic in the wake of revealingly messy anatomisations of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Three Sisters, using Christopher Hampton’s supple and witty text, from a translation by Vera Liber, is no less provocative, but far less satisfying than either of those projects; you never feel churned up by the play - that’s not on the agenda - and the actors leave no room for melancholy or a deepening sense of futility.
It’s wham, bang, thank you ma’am, very fast, the final scene played by the sisters with almost bizarre stoicism: Romola Garai’s haunted, emaciated Masha, Poppy Miller’s prim stick of an Olga and Clare Dunne’s Irish brunette Irina face the future with a false sense of doom and insecurity.
This is of course deliberate, as is the sense of dislocation and timelessness in the costuming, the briefcase-clutching simplicity of Paul Brennen’s excessively anxious-to-please and irritating schoolmaster and Jim Bywater’s Ferapont, deaf as a post because of his motorcycle helmet.
The sisters wear jeans and modern hairstyles, while Sandra Voe’s head-scarved Anfisa is obviously in a Chekhov play and John Lightbody’s gabby, self-centred heart-breaker Vershinin is a dashing black sergeant in tunic, boots and Alan Bates beard.
We first see the baron, played as a Daniel Kitson lookalike by Jonathan Broadbent, tinkling the ivories on a downstage piano. Chris Branch’s all-important soundtrack diversifies into rushing wind and rumbling tanks effects, as well as Burl Ives singing “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly” (I don’t know why, either) and mobile phone rings.
The stage is cleared in John Bausor’s design for minimal scenery - a lone child’s swing in the last act - and Paule Constable’s superb lighting sculpts the lunch party as effectively as the bedroom claustrophobia after the fire. The build up to the duel is rapid to the point of matter-of-fact, Mark Theodore playing Solyony oddly as a carefree loser.
More successful are Gemma Saunders as a shrill, suburban Natasha, a derided refugee from Alan Ayckbourn land, Nigel Cooke as the doctor slipping disastrously off the wagon, clearly because of his guilt at losing another patient under the knife, and Ferdy Roberts as a plump and neurotic Andrei, the one character whose entrapment really does feel inevitable and tragic.