It’s rare to see a production criticised for leaving the fourth wall in place, but when that production is staged at the home of the Berliner Ensemble, such an approach can seem a betrayal of the Brechtian attitudes which are almost baked into the stones of the building. However, Leander Haussmann’s revival is faithful to the spirit of Chekhov rather than Brecht. The naturalism of its staging is beautifully detailed (so much so that the show runs at upwards of three and a half hours including interval).
This is not by any means to say that it is a relentlessly sombre affair; on the contrary, tiny touches of slapstick abound. Baron Tusenbach leans in romantically towards Irina on the sofa, nonchalantly crosses his legs . . . and kicks away the candelabra. His military comrade Soljony is largely a figure of fun throughout (albeit a sometimes reluctant one), until his own advances towards Irina are rejected, at which point he becomes the malcontent more familiar to anglophone audiences.
Lothar Holler’s dilapidated-townhouse set is opulent in theatrical terms; one might only realise how much so when all is thrown into chaos in the third act, as the fire ravaging nearby parts of the town seems to threaten the Prozorovs’ house itself. The fourth act, set in front of the house as the garrison quits the town, is dominated by a playground roundabout on which the sisters, especially Irina the youngest, compulsively ride as a kind of consolation.
The performances do not always match the thoughtfulness of the staging: Karla Sengteller, for instance, shows Irina’s youth with a callow declamatoriness. If I say nothing about the central love affair, between Antonia Bill’s Mascha and the garrison’s new colonel Werschinin, this is because it would be unfair in the circumstances: at the performance I saw, the latter role was taken at extremely short notice by director Haussmann. Periodic gusts of wind and flurries of snow through every door also over-emphasise the wintriness of the sisters’ expectations. Nevertheless, this remains an excellent staging, on the assumption that it’s Chekhov that you’re actually looking for.