Three Sisters is one of my favourite plays, and Cheek by Jowl’s brilliant Russian production at the Barbican Theatre cements its place in my affections. Chekhov’s use of recurring themes and character types throughout his work (provincial life, birds, trees, elderly servants, boring school teachers and the like) to express the joy, frustration and desolation of life fascinates me more and more at each viewing.
As with previous Cheek by Jowl visits to the Barbican, temporary stadium style tiered seating has been installed over the normal auditorium, bringing the audience much closer to the action (the brown seats and darkness of the permanent theatre is spookily visible as you climb to take your temporary seat above).
The story of the three sisters (Olga, Masha and Irina), their brother Andrei and assorted spouses and friends, is that of spiralling unhappiness in their lives. The desperate realisation in the end, that their dreams will not come true, but that the trudge of life must go on regardless. When Masha (Irina Grineva, superb) is left by the man she loves at then end of the play, her anguished cry is not just for lost love, but for lost life. Masha must stay with her doting but tedious husband, but moments later her tragedy is supplanted by her sisters’ grief, life has moved on to the next miserable episode This is the way of life is the message, but I never feel like all hope is lost, and neither do the sisters, perhaps they will get to Moscow one day? Declan Donnellan’s direction of his exceptional Russian company is fluid but precise, and their acting emotionally clear yet naturalistic. They invite us to make up our own minds about the lives of their characters, just like we do in real life.
So often over the last few years we have seen wonderfully detailed scenic representations the Prozorov home, but here in Nick Omerod’s spare design we have only banners bearing a black and white photograph of the provincial house (later to be replaced by pictures of the lush grove of trees adjacent to the house), tables, chairs, minimal small props and a bare black stage. This is effective in making the action of the play absolutely focused on emotion rather than the overwhelming sense of time and place which period productions can sometimes have. But as we have an all Russian company, speaking their native language, we also gain a unique sense of place simply through language. Hearing the play in its original tongue somewhat changes our view of Chekhov, I think of him as less polite and some of his characters as more extreme, certainly Natasha becomes even more awful somehow. I don’t think that this production quite matches up to their Russian all male Twelfth Night last year, which was sublime, but this is a fine emotionally insightful production, highly recommended.