‘Three Sisters’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Three Sisters, Maly Drama Theatre, 2019

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Russia’s legendary Maly Drama Theatre turn in a darkly compassionate take on the Chekhov classic

We’re not exactly lacking in homegrown productions of ‘Three Sisters’ this year, with major revivals from the Almeida and the National Theatre. Still, there’s always room for one more when it actually comes from Russia, as the venerable Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg makes one of its periodic incursions into the West End.

Chekhov’s great play centres on the titular trio of siblings, wilting in rural exile, dreaming of a return to the glamorous Moscow of their youths. 

It has always had more than a trace of the existential: really, are the sisters any more likely to make it to Moscow than Godot is to turn up? But usually the sheer vibrancy of Chekhov’s characters stops productions getting overly Becketian.

But the Maly’s legendary director Lev Dodin does a pretty remarkable job of marrying the existential and the humane. 

Perhaps the most striking element of the show is Alexander Borovsky’s set. It's simple: the wooden facade of the sisters’ house. But it moves. It begins the show at the back of the stage with youngest sister Irina’s light-filled name-day party tinkling away merrily inside it. As the play moves on, it advances implacably, squeezing the sisters into a smaller and smaller strip of stage as their circles diminish. Instead of making us feel closer to the house, it somehow becomes remoter as it advances: the lights go out; the windows frame individuals who freeze in tableaux, isolated in gaping portals that look like dead-eye sockets.

The sisters’ world feels harsh, austere and tired. Monochromatic outfits prevail, and when a new garrison sweeps into town, the soldiers look like exhausted old men. Their leader Alexander (Igor Chernevich), normally dashing, is affable but exhausted, and his musings about the world of the future feel tinged by nihilism, not wonder.

Those three sisters then: Irina Tychinina’s Olga is austere and increasingly isolated – by the end she’s a shellshocked husk; Ksenia Rappoport’s Masha is kinder and more careworn than we usually see her; only Ekaterina Tarasova's Irina still has a girlish mischief, and even that’s partially concealed by a frosty facade. As tends to be the way with the great European ensembles, the acting is almost preposterously rich and nuanced.

It’s a very brisk version, and there’s stuff you might miss if you didn’t already know the play (like, er, the bit where the entire town catches fire). It feels like Dodin’s lens is spread a bit too wide, and that most of the characters could have done with a few more minutes. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful production, compassionate and despairing.

As the play wears on, everyone is more ground down: by thwarted dreams, misplaced love, loneliness, booze... sure, there’s also a gun dual, but despite the bleakness of his staging, Dodin is relentlessly compassionate. Nobody is mean or even particularly melodramatic, and the nastier characters are made more sympathetic than usual. The cynicism is dialled down. In the end they’re all in the same boat: gently crushed by life, as the dark advances.

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