Three Sisters

What would Chekhov make of these two productions, the one from Moscow’s Mossovet State Academic Theatre, under the helm of renowned film director Andrei Konchalovsky, the other, a new adaptation by young, up-and-coming and already award-winning Anya Reiss (The Acid Test, Spur of the Moment).

Konchalovsky’s Three Sisters comes in a pair, with Uncle Vanya, the film of which, also made by Konchalovsky is regarded as brilliant.

This stage version of Three Sisters – at least this London presentation – is however unlikely to garner quite the same ecstatic response. Wyndhams doesn’t seem to suit either the production’s style or its set! though no one could deny the quality of the acting on show. There is something about Russian acting and actors, a physicality that British actors find hard to capture. The difference could be cultural but this Three Sisters – three hours long, in Russian with English surtitles – harnesses both the more emotionally expressive and the coldly ironic present in the Russian character.

However, given that the surtitles often seem completely unconnected to the speaker – either running away with themselves or falling behind – the effect is a strange one. Confusion and a sense of dislocation reign! Not that it should make a huge difference for a play so well known. If you know the story, you should be able to follow it.

But Konchalovsky seems keen to emphasise this dislocation between words and behaviour as if to symbolise the essence of a play where no one listens to anyone and people talk without thinking.

The production starts promisingly enough with a startlingly vision of the three sisters floating high above on a trapeze, whilst a pianist in Russian army uniform plays loudly from an upright piano. Other surreal moments – the old doctor, Chebutykin, spotlit and a young woman who momentarily wanders in with a parasol – would seem to hint at a radical re-appraisal. And the production finishes by jolting us into the future with a video of troops marching to the front.

But in between nothing quite connects up and the key to this emphasised disconnect would appear to lie in interviews with the cast, between clunky scene changes, about their relationship to their roles and to Chekhov.

Ironic and often dead-pan, one actor describes Chekhov as `theatre of the absurd’. And suddenly you realise, Konchalovsky has taken his cue from Chekhov’s own, his sense of the absurdity – and the pity – of humanity and its sufferings.

It’s a bold, cold move. Much of the pathos that accompanies British productions which seem to associate themselves with a dying breed – much like our own Edwardians before the Great War – is non-existent. It is as though Konchalovsky has deliberately set his face against any kind of sentimental reading.

If a tough evening’s viewing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to see Chekhov as seen now through the eyes of his own people.

Interestingly, Russell Bolam’s production of Anya Reiss’s new, shorter (two hours straight through) version has much the same anticlimactic effect. Reiss sets her Three Sisters in a contemporary but unspecified country, the only clues to which are the fact of Masha having `gone native’ and married an `ethnic’ civil servant and school teacher. Vershinin, later the `amour’ of Masha, is described as the `new Attaché’. It could be Afghanistan or some other Middle Eastern outpost.

Reiss prose is recognisably of today, sharp, racey, modern. The army officers sport modern desert combats and the three sisters are stranded because their father bought a house `out there’ but then promptly died. They long to return to London but what exactly is stopping them is not entirely clear making their longing all the more puzzling.

Except, that, of course, Chekhov is not talking about a geographically located yearning but the dreams of youth, hope in the future, one by one destroyed by Time, chance and circumstance until the three sisters stand as markers for disillusion and despair but also resilient life-force.

Reiss and Bolam’s production gives us a Scottish Kulygin (the youngest daughter, Irina’s, husband-to-be), an underwhelming Vershinin, a bouncingly déclassé and vulgar Natasha (the character who steadily insinuates and takes over the household and increasingly I’ve come to feel Chekhov’s subtextual central focus) but a much diluted sense of the play’s and Chekhov’s occupation with historical perspective. So much has been cut away in this slimline, ex-pats-at-sea production that once again, full emotional involvement is thwarted.

Perhaps we British inject too much sentiment into Chekhov. Benedict Andrews’ revelatory Young Vic production two years ago proved how acute the play can be in producing provocative, indeed wrenching, parallels with today’s lazy conformity.

It must be one of the most difficult denouements to bring off – the three sisters at the end clinging together and carrying the burden of the play’s belief in human stoicism. That the trio of actresses in both productions achieve a small kind of catharsis says much for their skill but in neither case enough to make either production as memorable as one would have hoped.