Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre

Three Sisters - The Almeida

Across the creative industries the right collaborations can yield huge rewards and finding the right person to work with can result in years of success. Long-standing partnerships are more common than you might realise, designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd have worked together not just on the recent Pinter season but on countless productions before that and will be tackling Evita together in Regent’s Park in August. At last week’s Olivier Awards, director Marianne Elliott and her collaborative designer Bunny Christie walked away with an armful of awards for Company following previous international success with Angels in America and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but they weren’t the only partnership clutching trophies.

Last year, Director Rebecca Frecknall and actor Patsy Ferran joined forces for the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke, a new alliance that last March produced a striking and emotive production of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known plays. A West End transfer followed in the autumn and, last week, two Olivier awards for Best Revival and Best Actress – a notable achievement for two early-career theatre-makers. Just over a year since it opened, and days after their Olivier victories, expectant eyes now turn to the Almeida once more where their new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has started previews before facing the press tomorrow.

In recent years, traditional approaches to staging classic plays have been swept away, removing cluttered sets and stuffy costumes to allow the human stories to resonate more forcefully with an audience. While period-specific adaptations still occur, some of the most successful productions in recent memory have freed themselves from the confinement of place and time to focus on the psychology and emotional experience of the characters. van Hove’s approach to Ibsen and Miller, the National Theatre’s Chekhov trilogy, and now Frecknall’s own treatment of Williams and Chekhov have eschewed heavy sets and instead drawn from the writer’s creation of atmospheric suffocation and inevitable devastation within the text.

Three Sisters like much of Chekhov’s work is a rural story of isolation, loneliness and stunted dreams in which the glittering possibility of city life and freedom of intellectual expression weigh heavy on characters unable to escape their present circumstances. Few Directors have such a meaningful grasp of a play’s emotional beat as Frecknall, and in her production the competing frustrations of one family and the surrounding townsfolk ebb and flow as years and opportunities slip away from them. In this minimally-staged approach Chekhov’s comment on the erosion of knowledge and the individual unhappiness it subsequently causes sits alongside philosophical discussions on the rights to happiness and the creation of a better future.

And you feel those emotional beats from the start as Frecknall and writer Cordelia Lynn frame the drama with the funeral of the beloved patriarch. The stage is set with rows of chairs and a single piano, both – like Summer and Smoke – have a symbolic quality that underscores the drama. This proliferation of furniture represents the emotional clutter at the start of the play, the many obstacles standing between the family and their desired migration to Moscow. At Irina’s name-day celebration that marks the first scene, most of the characters are on stage, a reasonably happy occasion full of expectation, hope and possibility with this still young family mixing contentedly with the locals and stationed military officers.

But Frecknall ensures that the undercurrents subtly make themselves known through the positioning of brother Andrey on a shelf-like platform behind the stage suggesting not only his own semi-separation from his siblings but also the extent to which his actions will soon dominate and determine the outcome of all their lives; first in the expectation that his Professorship will allow the siblings to relocate to the city, and later through his ill-starred marriage to the prickly Natasha – note too that as her influence grows in later scenes, she physically assumes his place watching-over the household.

The slow removal of chairs from the stage throughout Act One represents the characters’ move towards self-realisation during the four years of the play, as they come to accept the difference between the dreams they harbour for the future, their own self-delusions that sustain them and the crushing reality that shatters these illusions. And while Summer and Smoke used a collection of pianos to add musical emphasis at key moments, here there is only one which remains unused throughout, embodying Irina and Masha’s comments on their livs being like an unplayed piano, a crucial insight into Masha in particular and the outpouring of emotion her affair with Vershinin unleashes. The closed and soundless piano comes to represent the shutting down of the female bodies in the play where marriage is a much a barrier to Masha’s happiness as purposeless maidenhood is for Olga and Irina.

Three Sisters is a story with many different currents and Frecknall emphasises the youth of her characters in the early part of the play as the Sergeyevich family – all under 30 – mix with the equally youthful townsfolk and soldiers. Older characters are present, but you feel the youthful surge of hope and of a different kind of future before real responsibility and burden make their mark. One of this production’s most interesting attributes is watching that shift as the story’s various entanglements play out; first we see Vershinin’s growing despair at the drastic behaviour of his mentally unwell wife and the pressure on his two young daughters (none of whom we see), and the audience must take their cues from Vershinin’s  world-weariness despite being only a little more than a decade older than the family. Likewise, the frustrations inherent in both Masha and Andrey’s marriages show how quickly the optimism of romance sours into regret, bitterness and, in both cases, reckless attempts to escape their confinement.

As events play out, the oldest characters come more sharply into focus, so that when the now somewhat eroded Irina turns to the Doctor for comfort four years and four Acts after her celebratory name-day, he too is unable to provide any solace that life becomes more explicable or navigable as he sinks once more into alcoholism and depression. Even the small role of Anfisa the servant, a much-discussed figure, becomes too old to be of use to the hard-hearted Natasha, a bone of contention with the kinder Olga. Frecknall’s meaningful inter-generational drama shows age as a series of disappointments and eventual disposal – perhaps the philosophising Vershinin is right and the only meaning in life is to live in the hope that someone else’s future will be better.

Surprisingly, eldest sister Olga (always dressed in blue) is the least substantial of the roles, appearing in far fewer scenes than her sisters. Ferran is excellent as the reluctant schoolmistress cast aside at 28 with no question of marriage, only a career she doesn’t want. It’s a subtle performance from Ferran who, with less stage time, infers much about Olga’s role as pseudo-matriarch, trying to protect her sisters and silently keeping the household together, while clearly struggling with the expected self-sacrifice, duty and the reliance of others.

While Ferran is the show’s biggest draw, it is Pearl Chanda whose performance as the asphyxiated Masha that you will remember, along with Peter McDonald’s sensitive and affecting Vershinin. Their relationship is one of the production’s most exciting and beautifully rendered storylines, charting a slow falling in love that overwhelms them both, realising only too late how devotedly attached they have become. It begins gently, a look, a preference for each other’s conversation and a tendency to gravitate towards one another without consciously realising it. As time leaps forward with each Act so too does the depth of their passion and reliance on one another to keep afloat in spite of their terrible marriages, an intimacy that Frecknall skilfully extracts from her actors.

With a notable role in Ink as the first Page Three girl, Chanda’s Masha is detached, cynical and coldly withdrawn from the husband she now considers a fool. Permanently in black, she is a dark presence at most family gatherings, suggesting a jaded depression far beyond her 24-years. Yet, the affair with Vershinin creates a kind of hope, transforming her into a warm and vital woman whenever he is in the room. The connection between them is electrifyingly portrayed by McDonald and Chanda, far more than lust, there is a true meeting of souls that lights them both so even in the background their intimacy and happiness in each other’s company is manifold, full of shy smiles and a need to seek each other’s eyes.

McDonald is equally empathetic, delivering his philosophical speeches and declarations of love with credulity and passion. There is an inner torment that McDonald elicits well, driven by the pain of his wife’s problems and the strain of caring for his family. The freedom Vershinin experiences with Masha is genuinely lovely, despite its adulterous nature, and its essential tragedy makes their stolen moments so moving. When the inevitable occurs in Act Four, its all the more affecting for being the most demonstrative either has been in public, and while McDonald’s Vershinin tries to retain a manly dignity, the crumbling of Chanda’s Masha is genuinely powerful.

A similar experience of snatched dreams affects the rest of the family; the development of youngest sister Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz – always in white) is engagingly handled as we see her grow from a childish 20-year old into a sadly resigned woman of 24, trying to balance the pressure to marry with a desire for independent work as the family dreams of Moscow come apart. Her collection of potential lovers are, however, thinly sketched and hard to keep track of in a busy show which does draw some power from what should be a dramatic finale.

Freddie Meredith finds all of Andrey’s weaknesses as the head of a household who actively separates himself from it. His self-inflicted decline has much to say about the hollow nature of power in rural masculinity, while Lois Chimimba captures all of Natasha’s foibles as a local girl determined to punish and dominate a family who despise her lack of intellect. Laura Hunt’s decision to dress her in pink and green throughout after Olga criticises the combination is an inspired choice that reveals so much about Natasha’s destructive resentment.

A production has to do a lot to earn a three-hour run time and this new version of Three Sisters very nearly does. The first couple of Acts fly by, full of gripping narrative and, surprisingly for Chekhov, plenty of comedy largely provided by Masha’s silly but ardent husband Fyodor (Elliot Levey). Aspect of the last Act aren’t yet fulfilling their dramatic potential, partly because Irina’s various suitors never properly come into focus and their encounter is a large driver for the finale, but also the various comings and goings from the stage mean that, other than the Masha-Vershinin parting, the conclusion doesn’t feel as cataclysmic for everyone else as perhaps it could.

Following up on the heart-stoppingly beautiful Summer and Smoke was never going to be easy, partly that’s because the latter was just one of those extraordinary theatre moments where everything comes alive, but there are also differences between the writing styles of Chekhov and Williams  – they certainly have themes in common but express them and the emotional vulnerability of their characters quite differently. If perhaps Three Sisters isn’t quite as ravishing as Frecknall and Ferran’s first collaboration then that’s hardly a criticism, it is still a vibrant and meaningful interpretation of Chekhov that reaps rewards. Keep on an eye on this new theatre partnership, it could be around for many years to come.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida until 25 May with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 500 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

2 responses to “Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I found this rather more of a come down from Summer and Smoke than you did. As you say, following up such triumph was always going to be difficult and I didn’t expect Three Sisters to be quite so brilliant. For one thing, I don’t think Frecknall got the story over anywhere near as vividly as in the Williams piece – which is strange as I didn’t know that play before seeing her production whereas I had at least a basic knowledge of what happens in Three Sisters. The performances, too, were not as memorable – there was certainly nothing in TS comparable to the individual brilliance and dramatic chemistry of Patsy Ferran and John Needham in S&S. Olga seems a thankless role for the production’s obvious star but one can see why none of the three other major female roles would have suited Ferran so, good as she was, attention was on Pearl Chanda as Masha and Lois Chimimba as Natasha.

    As for the staging: I have no problem with minimal staging for Shakespeare and I actively prefer it for Greek drama but I’m less enamoured of it in more modern classics which have extensive scene and stage directions provided by the author. I’d rather they strip the stage than, say, replace the author’s directions with equally detailed but different settings of their own but they can fall rather flat if the production is less brilliant than something like S&S. I thought the decision to locate Andrey (and sometimes Masha) away from the main action rather detracted from the sense (which I suspect is central to the play) that real offstage characters such as Protopopov and Vershinin’s family, as well as the dream of Moscow have a huge influence on the characters. I have problems with some of Chekhov’s characters anyway – are we meant to believe that Natasha cunningly works herself into dominating the household but does literally nothing about her husband’s gambling them into the poor house – and this production didn’t really succeed in drawing all these disparate personages and plot strands together.

    I liked Elliot Levey’s Kulygin, a very touching combination of comedy and pathos. Ferran was as good as, I thought, the role allows and the same can be said of Ria Zmitrowicz’s Irina. I would have liked to be fonder of Masha and to hate Natasha rather more than I did. I can’t really say it’s their fault but Chanda and Chimimba’s performances left me rather cool towards both these young women.

    It will be interesting to get the views of people who really like Chekhov. I’ve never really loved his work as I do, say, Ibsen and Shaw so my opinions must be taken in that light. My Saturday preview was full and remained full to the end (though my neighbour confessed he’d considered not returning after the interval). I wonder if you’re right, though, in hinting that three hours (it was just under that when I saw it even though the box office predicted 3h15m) is a lot of minutes for this production to fill.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – glad you found this production of interest and will be looking out for the press reviews tomorrow with interest.

      I found the positioning of Andrey and Natasha more meaningful than you did, but I wouldn’t say Natasha was cunning or even necessarily terribly aware of her own behaviour or how it appears to others. Her role as a local woman drawn into the intelligentsia is a complex one, and I think you are encouraged to see how difficult that is for her to an extent, while her personality and reactions are part of Chekhov’s comment on the difference between rural and city life, education and contentment which are common themes across his plays. Her marriage to Andrey has given her status but there’s no real sense that she loved him or is terribly bothered by his financial problems.

      Likewise Natasha – as an adulterous lover, I don’t think she is someone we should fully sympathise with and we see quite clearly her unhappiness is her own fault. The spikiness this engenders makes her unpleasant company for most of the characters and even to herself, but the relationship with Vershinin is showing us what might have been, the different woman she could have become had she chosen a different path – and that is very Chekhovian. Across his works we see people with ambitious dreams forced into a self-realisation where fleeting examples of who they wanted to become crash against the people they really are, which makes his work so essentially tragic.

      Have a nice Easter and enjoy your next trip to London.

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