Three Sisters, Almeida Theatre, review: ‘Captivating display of human suffering’

‘Bold direction’: the full cast of Three sisters. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, first performed in 1901, is an unflinching portrait of a family who have little in common but their mutual desire to escape their circumstances. They are held hostage to their fortunes by the age in which they live, their gender, opportunity, and their own worst enemies – themselves.

Coredelia Lynn’s thoughtful adaptation at the Almeida Theatre exposes the characters’ hopes and fears with frightening alacrity. Within minutes the sisters’ distinctive personalities are impressed upon us: Olga (played superbly by Patsy Ferran) shaped by her earnest selflessness; Irina by her charming impetuosity; Masha’s acerbic moodiness.

Their world is pierced by the arrival of soldiers settling in their unnamed provincial Russian town, who soon form the mainstay of the sisters’ social life. They hanker for the idea of moving to Moscow from the confines of their claustrophobic world, but never quite win the conviction that this might happen.

Rebecca Frecknall’s direction is at times bold, but mostly striking in its ability to build and create tension and humour through slow, deliberate movement on a sparse stage. Dialogue is sharp and often humorous; but it’s the absent and unsaid that prove the most powerful.

Pearl Chanda, Freddie Meredith and Patsy Ferran as Masha, Andrey and Olga.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

Pitiful, listless brother Andrey Sergeyevich (Freddie Meredith) haunts the play with his heartrending violin playing as her perches just above the stage in his room, cowering from his bullying wife. He rarely utters a word, but his failure to fulfil his potential speaks volumes for them all.

His pervasive absence smothers the play and the interaction between the characters. Andrey only speaks his mind when he knows the person he’s talking to is deaf. Each of the characters is wrapped inside their own misery, a point highlighted when lovers swap confidences and siblings accusations surrounded by a sleeping cast.

“There will be no happiness for our generation,” intones Vershinin (Peter McDonald), middle sister Masha’s (Pearl Chanda) compellingly idealistic lover who believes the work and suffering they endure will make for a better, more educated people in the future.

Work as a means for self-improvement is a theme that interweaves the narrative, but fails to provide the satisfaction sought. Irina’s inability to find happiness is not quelled by a stream of mundane jobs, nor is the Baron’s earnest, idealised concept of a “normal” working life.

Ria Zmitrovicz (centre) as Irina. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Education too never lives up to its promise. The witty, languid sisters speak three languages (Irina four); two of them are school teachers by the end of the narrative. Andre is deep in his books from his outset, his intellect marking him out with a promising career that is never fulfilled. Vershinin’s obsession with education never quite hits the mark – it is clear that their collective learning never quite makes them happy.

It’s an adaptation that toys with the idea of the present, or at least progress – enjoyably colourful swearing, Instagram-style photos, the warm sounds of Nico and hipster clothing litter the play. Yet it is never quite clear when this version is set, and this realisation, though probably intentional, sometimes jars.

“We have to live, we have to live,” cries Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz) in desperation as the sisters are left alone once more at the end of the play, their hopes turned to dust. As Chekhov’s words transcend his fictional Russian town, they also present a conundrum for an audience drained but captivated by this three-hour demonstration of human suffering.

Contentment is presented throughout as a construct, never quite within the sisters’ reach. Knowing the horrors about to unfold in our history in the years after 1901, this re-telling appears to reinforce the blindness of mankind. Perhaps it also make us conscious of the moments leading up to happiness, only precious once they’re gone.

Three Sisters runs until June 1 at Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, The Angel, N1 1TA.

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