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Three Sisters

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Life in the future for Chekhov's Baron Tusenbach means full employment and quantum teleportation; there is no such thing as happiness, that's just a marketing ploy. And the "local" girl Natasha who barges into the three sisters' household and snares their blubbery brother is an Australian with tattooed legs.

By relocating Chekhov in the modern world, director Benedict Andrews, in one of the most thrilling and refreshing productions of a Chekhov play I have ever seen, adds an ironic poignancy to the familiar sense of anomie and frustration. We are retreating from an "improved" world, not going towards it.

In this shaken up society, Irina's birthday gift is an antique samovar, tied in ribbons. The set is a huge rectangular platform comprising countless grey square tables, all of which are rhythmically removed during the aftermath of the third act fire, leaving Olga and Masha in a couple, each of them upturned for a cot.

With the withdrawal of the troops in the last act (soldiers in battle fatigues, helicopters whirring overhead), the sisters are left clutching each other on the huge mound of earth that sits like a gallery installation in Johannes Schütz's design under a cloudless but weirdly illuminated canopy of sky, the lid on the box.

Physical dislocation goes in hand with emotional torpor, and a superb cast, led by Mariah Gale as a forceful, stoical Olga and William Houston as the passionate "lovesick" major Vershinin (his second great Chekhov turn of the year, following Astrov at the Print Room), is liberated into a stunning new Anglo-Russian performance style.

This in turn is underpinned by Aussie Andrews' lively, slangy text (using a literal translation by Helen Rappaport), so that Michael Feast as the decrepit doctor, for instance, falls off the wagon during the fire with an expressively catastrophic abandon; he's hilarious and terrifying without any of that tedious old boy "drunken" acting we usually get.

Gala Gordon's Irina is a bright-eyed Post Office worker, not the usual simpering ingénue, while Vanessa Kirby's Masha, swigging directly from the vodka bottle, is a sexy skeleton of blonde ambition, and their brother, Andrey, in the pot-bellied shape of Jerusalem loser Danny Kirrane, a sort of early model Philip Seymour Hoffman, a track-suited layabout jolted into paternity and a job with the council.

This wholly unexpected intensity runs through the cast like an electric current: from Adrian Schiller's leather-jacketed schoolmaster, still tragically infatuated with his own wife after seven years, to Sam Troughton's piano-playing, love-struck baron, Paul Rattray's bitingly Scottish Solyony and Emily Barclay's sluttishly triumphant Natasha.

By taking such a robustly adventurous approach to the play, Andrews in fact reinforces its power of run-down provincialism, not least in the eerie masks and costumes of the carnival and the slippered trudge and deaf-aid docility of Harry Dickman's old council worker and Ann Queensberry's octogenarian nursemaid.

A brilliant evening, then, right up there with the best ever Three Sisters (by Laurence Olivier, Jonathan Miller, Trevor Nunn, Field Day and the Katona Josef in Budapest) but a sensational breakthrough and a poetic revelation at the same time, and in its own gloriously idiosyncratic manner.

Photo: Mariah Gale as Olga (Simon Annand)


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