Last updated: September 17, 2012 10:21 am

Three Sisters, Young Vic, London

Anyone who likes their Chekhov played straight should stay away, but this defiantly unconventional production is exhilaratingly acted
Gala Gordon, Mariah Gale and Vanessa Kirby in 'Three Sisters'©Simon Annand

Gala Gordon, Mariah Gale and Vanessa Kirby in 'Three Sisters'

The samovar makes an appearance in Benedict Andrews’ wildly unorthodox production, so too does the spinning top – the gift for Irina that quietly sums up the characters’ sense of pointlessness. But in many other particulars, this is not Three Sisters as we know it. The birch trees have given way to an earth mound, the frustrations spill over in expletives and much of the play is delivered on or around a platform of wooden tables which are gradually removed during the Act 3 fire. It is a striking metaphor for the sense of transience that permeates the play. Andrews has described the sisters’ “homesickness” as being a “key condition” of contemporary life and his wild, dislocated mash-up catches that feeling, sometimes dazzlingly. Chekhov was writing just before the vast political and social change that swept Russia; Andrews, a century later, responds with the poignant thesis that people feel no less cheated and confused today and with a febrile modern aesthetic that aims to express that.

This is bound to be a divisive production: some will hate it, and anyone who likes their Chekhov straight should definitely stay away. It certainly loses some coherence in transition: it is in reacting to the specific frustrations of their time and setting that Chekhov’s characters express the universal fears that we recognise. Andrews, however, doesn’t offer a precise location for his modern version, so while there are great fits – Andrey’s brassy wife here trips around town in gaudy furs and bling – there are odd loose ends, such as the presence of servants and the absence of technology.

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But what he catches brilliantly is the deep restlessness and thwarted energy in the play, the fact that most characters are barely present in the present: they look forward or back, wistfully, hopefully or in despair. And he coaxes superb performances from his cast. Mariah Gale is a movingly stoical Olga, the worn-out schoolteacher, Vanessa Kirby as Masha is wildly unhappy, eaten up with contempt for her pedantic teacher husband (a funny and poignant Adrian Schiller) and Gala Gordon’s Irina blossoms then fades before us. William Houston makes an excellent, passionate Vershinin and Sam Troughton a fine Tuzenbach. There is a raw quality to their performances that is both bracing and moving.

Audacious, defiantly unconventional and exhilaratingly acted, the production whirls by like a dance, finally leaving the sisters washed-up, dazed and alone, as they try to fathom the meaning of their lives.

4 stars

www.youngvic.org

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