Chekhov’s Three Sisters has long been a favourite in the UK. Perhaps because of its core characters who keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ in public, but are unhappy in private, it resonates with the British disposition. The longing of the metropolitan Prozorov sisters for a ‘better life’ in Moscow is also familar, with several recent productions drawing this comparison with London and ‘the provinces’. Ross McGregor’s latest adaptation is faithful to the source material, though there is the inclusion of music at various junctures to accentuate the ‘scenes of merriment’.
The play takes place on the birthday of Irina (Victoria Llewellyn), the youngest of the sisters. It’s also the anniversary of their father’s death. It occured to me that without a mother or father to ‘set their compass by’, the Prozorovs were ‘adulting’ – realising that they had to be responsible and take charge of their lives, but not sure how to go about it. If the parents were still alive in the play, the siblings undoubtedly would have all made very different choices.
Three Sisters is a play of symmetry and contrasts, and in this production we see parallels between Andrei (Spencer Lee Osborne ) the only brother and Doctor Chebutykin (Andrew Wickes) – both frittering away their potential and in their moments of introspection, restort to getting drunk.
Claire Bowman as Masha the middle sister, encapsulates the family’s dissatisfaction with life. For her, meeting Vershinin (Toby Wynn-Davies) – the new commanding officer of the army base – is as refreshing as finding an oasis in the desert and a respite from her interminably vexing husband Kulygin (Stephen McNiece). Of all the characters, she is the one who naturally draws the audience’s sympathy. Of course, she isn’t the only person seeking extra-marital ‘solace’ elsewhere. Initially looked down upon by the Pavarov sisters, Natasha (Hannah Victory) has the upper hand later on, repaying any slight she may have received with interest. In this production, Natasha’s force of personality is so great that the eldest sister Olga (Cornelia Baumann) is practically rendered mute and kept from retorting by her own ‘outdated’ manners.
Even though Three Sisters takes place in the early 20th century when rumblings of insurrection were beginning to brew, Natasha’s presence can be interpreted as a foreshadowing of the 1917 Revolution – imposing her will on the running of the house with iconoclastic zeal. Certainly the guileless zeal for work exhibted by Irina and Tuzenbach (Conor Moss) can also be interpreted as the initial rapture for post-tsarist Russia until reality kicked-in. Ironically, of all the people in Three Sisters, Natasha is the one who is happiest for most part throughout, unapologetic for how she feels or what she wants.
So why is Three Sisters relevant the 21st century? In some ways – technology withstanding – nothing much has changed in 100+ years. With the exception of the few who are ‘contented’, most people want more out of life and truly believe “If only such-and-such happened, I would truly be happy.” How much this is dictated by external factors and how much by the will to act is open to debate. If the play has a lesson, it’s that perspective is everything. And while time gives and takes away in equal measure, what’s most precious in the long run is finding a true connection with another human being who makes even the most humdrum existence worth living.
© Michael Davis 2018
Three Sisters runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 14th April.