'You ain't going to Moscow, baby,' quips a minor character in auteur director Benedict Andrews's iconoclastic take on Chekhov's stuck-in-the-mud siblings. His retelling of the melancholic story of Olya, Masha and Irina – the trio of provinical spinsters who dream of escape to the big city – is so blunt that, by the end, it borders on Beckett. The Andrews's sisters end the play huddled on a mound of earth, utterly futureless.
They start as dilettante debutantes, bright-eyed and flushed with the invulnerable certainty of youth. 'My God,' says Masha to the 43-year-old Major Vershinin, 'you're so old.' Stuck out in the Russian countryside, they seize each day by grabbing the bottle; vodka-soaked parties end in raucous rounds of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
But is everything changing, as William Houston's enigmatic Vershinin believes? Or is everyone destined to forever follow suit, generation on generation, as his fuddy-duddy junior, Tuzenbach, insists?
Just as you think Andrews is damning a wholly Epicurean existence, however, he blasts everything apart for an apocalyptic second half. After a fire ravages the nearest town, the tables that form Johannes Schütz's stage are removed, one by one, from underneath the characters. Their world disintegrates – I read a metaphor for climate change – and the 'glorious' future, on which all their hopes are pinned, collapses entirely. Only nihilism and love remain.
Andrews, who directed 'Big and Small' with Cate Blanchett in April, habitually explodes classic texts. While his staging – simultaneously clinical and elemental – has the odd pat excess (animal masks are already tiresome), it's surprisingly unobtrusitve. The contrast is turned up, but Chekhov's play remains intact, its existential clout maxed out disturbingly.
It's further proof, too, of how deliciously Continental-style design/direction and good old British acting combine. In a super cast given licence to shine, Vanessa Kirby stands out as Masha, moving from diva to devastation, with Houston, Michael Feast (Chebutykin) and Danny Kirane (Andrey) also on top, top form.