Tracy Letts isn’t the sort of playwright one automatically thinks of as a natural fit for adapting Chekhov’s plays. Patrick Marber perhaps, but Letts? Something with a Southern Gothic flavour perhaps, but perspective on the entropy of the Russian aristocracy? The less-than-obvious juxtaposition makes the mind boggles at the possibilities. So what can we expect in his version of Three Sisters?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a belated response to the Napoleonic revolutions of the 19th century, which forever altered Russia’s view of itself and the outside world (sounds familiar)? The events that lead to this had been brewing since the turn of the century, the discontent gaining traction away from the seat of power.
We’re reminded in the play that the cosmpolitan Prozorov sisters fluently speak a number of different languages, but there is little demand for linguistic social skills in their present provincial location. At first they are opely disdainful of Natasha (Francesa Burgoyne) – a local woman ‘with poor dress sense’ who is ‘ill-suited’ as a match to their brother. She elicits our sympathies initially.
However, it is through her that Letts’ hold of the material can be keenly felt, the closest thing to the discord in Letts’ trademark oeuvre. Burgoyne’s transformation from social pariah to ‘lady of the house’ is breathtaking, the most radical U-turn of Natasha I’ve seen in any production to date. Throughout the play there is much unhappiness, especially regarding people enduring the opposite of what they want in matters of love. However, we see in Natasha the only person who is truly ‘content’ at the end – a result of not letting guilt or duty dictate her actions.
The core performances of Celine Abrahams’ Olga, Ivy Corbin’s Masha and Molly Crookes’ Irina hold the play together, though special mention should be made Corbin’s Masha whose discontment with her marriage and joy at finding a kindred spirit in Vershinin is palpable. In addition J.P. Turner whose spirited, yet angst-ridden performance of Chebutykin is a warning to the others of deep-seated regret from inaction decades-ago.
Phil Willmott’s production takes place at the Union Theatre in Southwark, London – just across the road from the original site. Arranged to be performed in the round, with a stairwell that ascends beyond the sight of the audience, it reminded me of the layout of In The Jungle Of Cities at the Arcola Theatre in 2013.
Letts’ adaption had a Brechtian flavour to it – minimal, ageless and universal. In hindsight, Letts is a natural fit for adapting Three Sisters, especially when one consider the dynamics within his August: Osage County with its three sisters, the unhappiness in their respective relationships and the exposing of things unsaid. In that sense, this version of Three Sisters has a relevance to all eras.
© Michael Davis 2017
Three Sisters runs at Union Theatre, London until 4th February 2017.