Great yawning silences punctured by hysterical outbursts and the intermittent taunt of a ticking clock provide the perfect soundtrack for the latest incarnation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In the rather cavernous Southwark Playhouse, the behemoth of Russian theatre blooms anew, carefully tended by Anya Reiss, whose original script and unique approach haul the drama into the twenty first century. Stripping the play of its fin de siècle Russian aristocracy, Reiss plunges the characters into the present day, twisting them into British ‘rahs’ whose disconnection with the modern world is uncomfortably palpable.
As in Chekhov’s original, Olga, Masha and Irina, the daughters of the Prozorov family, despise their current living conditions and yearn to return to their beloved home town. Resenting their father for inconveniently dying and subsequently stranding them at his military post in the Middle East, their wish to leave for London is further thwarted by their brother Andrey’s penchant for gambling away large sums of money. The family are frequently visited by the soldiers who reside nearby and close friendships very quickly blossom, testing each of the sister’s balance between happiness and morality. Andrey further jeopardises the structure of the Prozorov family by giving his new bride, the nouveau riche Natasha, free reign over the house.
Longing, desperation and almost excruciating boredom burst beautifully from Anya Reiss’ adaptation of Three Sisters. Chekhov’s detailing of the painful but inevitable demise of the aristocracy is clearly shown through the sparsely decorated stage. The nihilistic inertia that runs through the play is wonderfully captured by the relatively static scenes while the psychological disquiet explodes unexpectedly in blazes of suppressed emotion. Irina materialises in the form of Holliday Grainger, whose bouncing and pouting in equal measure expertly demonstrate her naïve optimism which is in turn countered by Emily Taaffe’s Masha, whose smouldering wrath and harsh voice scorn the very notion of the ‘new world’. Olga, played by Olivia Hallinan, masterfully balances frustrated British stoicism with tired despondency and, towards the end of the piece, Hallinan shows a particularly clear understanding of her emotional struggle as she mourns both the loss of a family friend and her own chances of happiness.
This updated version of Chekhov’s universally esteemed Three Sisters effortlessly fuses the structure of the aristocratic family with the modern notion of the middle class. Reiss’ snappy script wonderfully catapults the characters through the story while Russell Bolam’s cleverly fractured direction has the cast jolting in eruptions of flurried motion. This adaptation is a glistening gem of new writing that respectfully embellishes Chekhov’s original and further attacks the notions of class and society.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Three Sisters plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 3 May 2014. Click here to book tickets.