Cordelia Lynn and Rebecca Frecknall’s version of Chekhov’s classic, Three Sisters, offers a fresh and modern take on the tale of three siblings yearning for a better life in Moscow.
Anton Chekhov’s play centres on the hopes and disappointments of the Prozorov sisters, a middle-class family living in a provincial Russian town in the nineteenth century. Frustrated by the perceived mundanity of their everyday lives, Olga, Masha and Irina develop strategies of coping with the disappointment of finding themselves stranded, their hopes of returning to Moscow – the city of lights, the city of their youth – ever elusive.
Chekhov’s play is at its best when focusing on the relationships between the siblings. We’re given a privileged glimpse into the uninhibited interactions between those who have grown up together and known one another intimately. This is most evident in the open, forthright dialogue, a characteristic of Chekhov’s work that affords it a modern sensibility. Whimsical and giggly, Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz), the youngest of the three sisters, yearns the most for a return to Moscow, despite her hazy memories of it. We witness her declared epiphany that her life’s purpose must revolve around work; for her, work will give her life true meaning and a solution to the boredom she currently experiences. Masha (Pearl Chanda), the volatile middle sister, is both a detached, lethargic presence and the source of spontaneous outbursts and verbal lashings to those around her. Olga (Patsy Ferran), the oldest, takes upon her own slender shoulders the heaviest burden of work, and frequently worries about the family’s future.
The rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia sketch a past that appears both romanticised and imagined. At the same time, the longing for escape prevents a sense of belonging in the place that is now their home. Irina rejects romance and suitors, as the notion that her future husband awaits her in Moscow is firmly cemented in her mind. In Masha’s case, her marriage to a teacher at the age of 18 reflects her impulsiveness, but the man she once thought clever and interesting now fills her with contempt. His bumbling comments and attempts at light-hearted humour are cringe-worthy; amusing yet sad, his interjections are most often met with stony silence. In one such exception, Masha is provoked to respond to her husband’s insistence that their marriage is one of happiness: ‘I’m bored, bored, bored!’ she cries in frustrated anguish. The fourth sibling, their brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith), estranges himself by spending most of his time in his room with his instruments. In a telling scene, he laments the lack of intellectual equals in the provincial town, but also notes that his own dreams of becoming an important academic are unlikely to be realised. We are reminded of his moody, sulking presence as he sits, throughout most of the play, on a suspended ledge over the stage.
Of course, one notable factor is the lack of agency the three women have. What little agency is accorded to them is reactive: which suitor to marry? How to respond to the dominance of Andrey’s wife, their sister-in-law Natasha (Lois Chimimba), in the household? Or, how to manage Andrey’s gambling problem, which heralds financial ruin? While hope is placed in other characters for pulling the sisters out of their predicament, it is a hope that, every time, must be dashed. Olga stands out as the level-headed, resilient one, a role she is forced to fulfil as the eldest sister. Yet, even in her case, she is subjected to external forces over which she can exert little control. In one scene, when confronted with an injustice against the Nanny, she attempts to confront the perpetrator, her sister-in-law Natasha, but she struggles to form words into coherent sentences, visibly floundering, and collapses into a chair in defeat.
Some of the best contributions come from the secondary characters, such as Colonel Vasilevich (Alexander Eliot), an old family friend from Moscow stationed temporarily in their town and who draws Masha out of her cynical boredom for a while. Vasilevich is an unlikely optimist who feels that a brighter future awaits the next generation, even if it cannot be achieved for themselves. Reflecting on poor choices made in his own life, he wonders, ‘What would happen if we could live our lives all over again but be fully conscious of it the second time?’ Another great scene is delivered entirely by the doctor Chebutykin (Alan Williams), an eccentric old man who dotes on all three sisters, but especially Irina. In the scene he suffers a drunken existential crisis, thoroughly disenchanted with his life’s achievements and full of self-doubt about his talents as a doctor.
Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation is faithful to Chekhov’s style yet features modern twists that work well, such as the characters’ 21st century colloquialisms, and their posing for photographs and selfies that are projected onto the wall behind the stage, also serving the function of marking the passing of time. The sparseness of furniture is evocative of the limited lives that the Prozorovs live, with the often multiple chairs on set that exceed the number of characters on stage at any given point a possible reminder of the relative isolation that the family experiences in their community. Patsy Ferran takes on an unassuming role as the pragmatic elder sister, but the fragile, birdlike quality that she brings to her character Olga is excellent in conveying how she frets over the fate of the family. Pearl Chanda is perhaps the one who brings real emotional depth, but also dark humour in her portrayal as Mascha. Dressed in gloomy gothic outfits throughout the production that contrast with Ria Zmitrowicz’s white and airy clothes, Chanda is thoroughly convincing as the sarcastic, grumpy and cynical sister who is also the most emotionally turbulent of the three.
The production proceeds with a dreamy, unfocused quality that allows a centring in on the humdrum day-to-day experiences of the sisters. This dreamlike quality mostly works, but comes at a cost of having the plot move in a rather unspecified direction. The existentialist drama feels as though it drags at points, with some sense of repetitiveness that may have been avoided. Yet the central themes explored in Chekhov’s piece, such as the limited lives and experiences of the three women and their various coping mechanisms, continue to hold real relevance to a contemporary audience.
Three Sisters will be performed at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 1st June. For more information and to book tickets, click here.