Three Sisters, Southwark Playhouse, London – review

One of the hallmarks of a great play is that it still seems true to us even though the details of the period no longer hold. Three Sisters is one such play: the specific hurdles faced by the siblings may no longer be present, but the greater sense of frustration and disillusionment that afflicts the characters is all too recognisable today. So perhaps the first question for any version that transposes the drama to a different setting is what it adds.

Anya Reiss’s contemporary version is crisp, fluid and lively and reinforces just how close we feel to Chekhov’s characters. But the expat setting – “near a British Embassy, overseas, now” – though it makes sense of the crippling boredom and loss of purpose in the play, is rather vague and feels chosen to fit the plot, rather than allowing the plot to arise organically from the setting. The context explains why these young women would yearn for their native London, why the army would be present and why one soldier might shoot another. The sense of the characters being trapped in a bigger socio-political shift that they can’t quite grasp or affect holds good, to a degree. But it presents many niggling problems. For instance, Masha here is married to a local man, which, because of the cultural differences between them, raises new questions that can’t be addressed without being much bolder. The move fits, but slightly awkwardly, like a borrowed coat.

These concerns aside, this is a fresh and lively adaptation, given a vivid production by Russell Bolam, full of lovely performances. The sisters themselves are subtly defined – Olivia Hallinan’s touchingly earnest Olga, Holliday Grainger’s beautiful, idealistic Irina, and Emily Taaffe’s impulsive, angry Masha – and the bond between them is tangible. Taaffe, in particular, poignantly conveys Masha’s bitter unhappiness. There is excellent work too from Paul McGann as the pontificating Vershinin, David Carlyle as the eagerly positive Tusenbach and Joe Sims as the surly Solyony. Meanwhile Thom Tuck is infuriatingly plausible as the failed academic brother, Andrey.

At one point Andrey literally trips over some of the garish plastic toys that his brash wife Natasha has bought for their son. Bolam’s production is full of such lively details – the drunken party becomes a karaoke session, with the characters blasting out Pulp’s “Common People”. It’s a funny, moving and humane staging that works up to a point in this setting but doesn’t feel quite at one with it.

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