The common complaint about Chekov is that 'nothing happens'. However, there is very little languor in the Oxford Stage Company s Three Sisters – it is pacy and frenetic, played for laughs as much as Chekov ever can be, with enough brittle repartee to satisfy any Coward or Wilde fan.
It is usual to find various grande dames of the theatre in the central roles, but this is a young cast – a deliberate decision on the part of associate director Simon Godwin. With the sisters being played by actresses nearer to the ages specified in the text, he wants to rediscover the play s sense of youthfulness and fragility. Certainly, the obvious youth of the sisters adds to the sense of frustration and pathos we experience. And despite the lack of 'big names', there is some cracking acting to be seen on the Whitehall stage. There is not a single dud performance in the production, while Claudie Blakley as Masha, and Kelly Reilly as Irina, are outstanding.
The three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, are stuck in miserable three-horse town on the borders of the Russian empire after the death of their army general father. They are frustrated by their provincial existence, (as is their brother Andrei, who yearns for an academic life), and as the play unfolds and the years pass, they talk constantly of their imminent return to Moscow.
The play begins on Irina s 20th birthday, and the arrival of a new army commander, Vershinin(Jonny Phillips). He is a handsome idealist, and his off-stage wife doesn t understand him. Masha – played by Blakley as a cynical intellectual with a taste for bad language – was married off at 18 to a pompous idiot of a schoolmaster, and the pair inevitably fall in love. Irina, the youngest sister, is pursued by various swains, suitable and insuitable – but is too preoccupied with her own dreams and neuroses to care. Her desperate speech of thwarted hope in Act Three is intensely moving. The role of Olga, the schoolmistress eldest sister, affords less opportunity for bravura performance, but Claire Rushbrook s interpretation of jolly, stiff-upper-lipped repression is admirable.
So what else happens? Mike Poulton, playwright and translator of Chekov explains in the programme notes: 'Everything happens that could possibly happen: people fall in love, are happy, are miserable, get older, get drunk, marry, don t marry, die, etc etc. What else is there?' But in a way, the play is more about what does not happen. Andrei (Paul Hilton) never becomes a professor, but marries a local girl, Natasha, (Indira Varma). Natasha submerges the whole family in a nightmare of provincial snobbery while blatantly cuckolding her husband. Andrei becomes an increasingly pathetic figure. He gambles away the family fortune and is finally left shambling around the stage pushing a pram, all baggy trousers and greasy hair. Kulygin, Masha s schoolmaster husband, also tries to deny the reality of his wife s affair, and Paul Ritter s portrayal provokes sympathy for the man, despite his ludicrous pretensions. Meanwhile, Masha s bitter, detached elegance makes her last, uninhibitedly anguished, farewell of her lover all the more distressing.
The new adaptation of the script, by Samual Adamson, has raised eyebrows in some quarters, particularly with regard to Masha s swearing. But overall, it works, and the energy and sincerity of the acting complements the intellectual depth of Chekov s writing to near-perfection. Whether you are a newcomer to Chekov, or whether you have seen more productions of Three Sisters than you've had hot dinners, this one is strongly recommended.