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The Schaubühne’s new Three Sisters is as unforgiving a reading of Chekhov as it is possible to be.

However elusive the play’s message and philosophy it is unambiguously about yearning and the need to love: to make the tragedy touch us is not an insuperable task for a director.

In Falk Richter’s stripped-back, sometimes ferocious staging, the characters are in cold paralysis and seem to have been there for a long time.

He traps them behind a wide oblong frame: they move behind it, somehow out of focus,across a shiny floor and against a huge grey latticed screen.

Olga (Steffi Kuhnert) sets the tone from the off, recalling the burial of the three sisters’ father in a harsh monotone: the emotional dynamic throughout lies somewhere between miserable and sour.

All the lines are delivered in a brisk, admirably unfussy German (Richter is also the adapter), but this super-cool lingo hobbles fantasy; if the three sisters are not dreaming, we are not with them and unlikely to care.

It is not all bad news. Bibiana Beglau as Masha is poised and moves beautifully, even if it is often hard to hear her.

Thomas Bading as her insufferable husband Kulygin gives a finely articulated performance as a pedantic twit.

Jule Böwe is attractive and skittish as Irina, though when she laments her lot at the end of Act Three, the hysterical breakdown she presents is grotesquely disproportionate to what she is saying.

The best moments take place stage front, on the surface of the bottom stretch of the frame: when, after the fire in the third act, Masha gently strokes Vershinin and then sits at his feet, a welcome tenderness suddenly breaks through.

It happens too infrequently. Chekhov’s characters are desperate for somewhere better. Richter shows them already there, deeply depressed about it: that is to shoot yourself in the foot before the curtain rises.

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