Ah Moscow! In Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’, the titular heroines pine for the Russian capital; in London, we’re lucky that the city has come to us. Well, a piece of it anyway. Moscow’s Mossovet State Academic Theatre has arrived in the West End with two productions of Chekhov plays staged in their mother tongue for two weeks.
Apart from a jarring flourish at the start – where the Prozorov sisters swing from the rafters – and then later when some strange videos played during scene changes in which the cast explain their connection to their characters, Andrei Konchalovsky’s ‘Three Sisters’ is broadly a straightforward production.
Olga, Masha and Irina are desperate to trade their constricting country home for the bright lights of the capital. As time passes, their joy and energy is beaten down and their hopes for a fulfilled life dashed. Their brother’s ghastly new wife is vulgar; youngest sister Irina has suitors, but none that she loves; Masha’s marriage goes stale; and Olga – the oldest – works her fingers to the bone as a teacher with no promise of a husband.
The cast here are more controlled and less caricatured than in the other Mossovet production, ‘Uncle Vanya’. There’s a distinct flatness to the action (or rather, inaction), especially in the final scene where the poignancy of these women’s situation is lost in a touch of hysteria.
The three sisters themselves are excellent and all very different. Larisa Kuznetsova’s Olga is sparrow-like and nervous, Yulia Vysotskaya’s Masha is sultry and languid, while Galina Bob’s Irina is sweet as a button. Konchalovsky makes us like the trio, who are a little island of nostalgia in a rapidly transforming Russia. By the end, not much has changed yet everything has.
The subtitles were a little out of synch in the production I saw, but listening to the ebb and flow of the text in its original language is a treat.
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This clownesque version of Three Sisters makes you puzzled, shocked, disappointed and bored in just under 5 minutes and with not a single smile. Leaving you wondering why there is a need to torture audience for much longer… though even for that you see an answer very quickly, where the director focuses your attention on Chebutykin, an old and tired doctor, who think that life is just an illusion and nothing matters, giving you a not-so-subtle hint that this is the self-indulgent director’s point of view. Before the start of the play Konchalovsky asks you to switch your mobile phone off, suggesting that Chekhov wouldn’t like your phone to ring during the play, since he was known for his attention to detail. Ironically that’s exactly the reason, why Chekhov himself would have probably walked away from this performance a few minutes in, right when blatantly obvious becomes painfully boring.
It is perhaps ok to serve a burnt toast for dinner to make a point, but is plain rude and unnecessary to shove it down people throats for over 2 hours, which the director himself and his young wife playing Masha should understand, since they have their own culinary show. Cancelling the play at the very beginning or inviting a proper circus with bears on stage would have been a much more engaging and respectable act.
The only thought provoking moment comes when Russian part of the audience gives this self-indulgent “balagan” a standing ovation. It makes you think, if this blunt and somewhat insulting incompetence deserves applause, and after over 100 years of Chehov’s demise the Russian audience evolved to hail anything thrown at them with such devotion, maybe Konchalovsky is right and all the vivid dreams of better life so poignant in the Chehov’s plays should be ridiculed and there is no hope. But as Chechov 100 years ago, I choose to think there still is.