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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The director Chris Goode has summed up the aura in Chekhov’s Three Sisters as “this impulse to move, absolutely constrained by the fear of moving”. This covers some of the play, but by no means is all of it, and Goode’s semi-improvised version ...Sisters at the Gate is best viewed as a quick, ingenious 90-minute skim across a masterpiece.

The production is the first in a “New Directions” initiative launched by the Gate and Rupert Goold’s Headlong Theatre to stir up new ways of doing the classics. This kind of radical, deconstructed Chekhov has been going on for years in Eastern Europe, but Goode’s show has a fresh and appealing tone, and is beautifully designed by Naomi Dawson in a big conservatory-like room with hanging flower baskets, a “real time” clock, post-its on the wall (are they train schedules to Moscow?) and a microphone.

The six actors – five female, one male – draw straws, consult letters and proceed randomly but with some purpose through the business of Irina’s birthday, the arrival of Vershinin, the lunch party, Masha’s misery, the fire, the departure of the soldiers. In the final minutes, as the cast sit pinned to their chairs like the butterflies under glass around the auditorium, a huge, very tame white rabbit scampers cheerily about.

Roles are switched without reason, but you always know who’s who and I don’t think an ignorance of the original would bar too much understanding. Tom Lyall plays mostly in a salmon shift while the five sisters – and he’s one, too – make glancing appearances as the other characters with military caps and jackets. The lighting and sound effects are outstanding, creating an organic poetic environment for the play and the playing around.

Modern newspapers are consulted, and there is a quick burst of “We all live in a yellow submarine”. But the costumes are accurately in period. The anachronism is a deliberate way of distilling the emotional essence, and the concerted wail of disappointment is genuinely gut-wrenching. Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick and Melanie Wilson are all utterly convincing. The performance is different every night. Fascinating.

- Michael Coveney


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