You can tell you’re at a rather unusual production when the star is photographed in the programme advertising designer clothes, which is what the audience is wearing. This Three Sisters should have been a great production; with Michael Blakemore, a renowned Chekhov whiz directing, the adaptation by Christopher Hampton, and completed by an all-star cast that has autograph hunters pacing up and down outside the theatre.
Yet, for all the posturing, something has gone wrong between concept and execution. It’s not that this is a bad production or is badly acted – this cast is too good for that – but this is a Chekhov without soul and, more importantly, without humour: the comedy is very much underplayed.
This is an ill-tempered household, where nerves are snapping like violin strings, and where the family tensions are apparent right from the start. From the outset, Kristin Scott Thomas’s Masha exemplifies the sense of bad feeling, as she shifts crossly from one side of the sofa to another trying to read. It’s an interpretation that is exacerbated by her appearance: her tightly-drawn back hair and paleness of her skin accentuate the sharpness of her features.
Madeleine Worrall’s Irina soon loses her youthful vigour (rather too quickly) and is sucked into this maelstrom of misery. And Robert Bathurst’s Vershinin is less the idealist with hopes for mankind (Chekhov’s alter ego on stage), than a crotchety curmudgeon going through a mid-life crisis.
What’s missing is the deadening effect of boredom. One gets the impression that the sisters’ dreams of Moscow are less thoughts of liberation, but more of a desire to move to somewhere else to practise their malevolence.
All of this sniping has the effect of making Susannah Wise’s Natasha even more of a domestic tyrant than she usually is. Her outburst against the retention of the servant is like a thunderclap (although probably amongst this audience, there were those who could sympathise with the difficulty of finding decent help), and by the end, she’s like a petty dictator, terrorising the household.
There are some standout supporting performances; Kate Burton’s Olga is a good balance between schoolmarm, keeping a wary eye on the burgeoning Masha/Vershinin romance, and optimist. Douglas Hodge nicely conveys Andrei’s decline from youthful idealism to down-trodden husband, reduced to boasting of his minor triumphs. While David Burke’s cynical Chebutykin and James Fleet’s Kulygin display a feeling of warmth and humanity that is noticeably lacking in the household.