Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 8 February, 2002

Early next month Reza de Wet's twenty-years-on sequel Three Sisters Two will join Chekhov's original in repertoire at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Sam Walters' production of the Chekhov play exemplifies many of the strengths and weaknesses of the Orange Tree style, being one of those shows of which a reviewer is hard pressed not simply to keep repeating the adjectives "efficient" and "workmanlike".

From the moment the lights go up on Octavia Walters' Irina standing on a window seat gazing, shining-eyed, into the distance, this is a production which goes almost exclusively for the doomed romanticism of the piece. The playwright's equally strong critique of social inertia is left largely to fend for itself; social comment is more or less restricted to some easy laughs at the expense of Louise Bolton's rosy-cheeked arriviste Natasha and at Vershinin and Tusenbach's repeated taste for passing the time in the sisters' provincial salon by, in Carol Rocamora's translation, "philosophising".

Cate Debenham-Taylor's quietly fervent Masha has clearly not yet had the yen for romance squeezed out of her. However, Jason Baughan as her husband Kulygin has an unusually affable manner, so that we tend to indulge his dullness of speech; this tolerance of the schoolmaster tends to rob Masha of the excuse of escape when she falls for Stuart Fox's banally suave, sonorous Vershinin, and deprives the affair of any deeper resonance within the lifestyle of the sisters and their circle as a whole. Likewise, Damien Matthews as Tusenbach, the baron who waxes eloquent on the theoretical dignity of labour, comes across merely as a young idealist rather than a hopelessly naïve aristo sheltered from the reality of the working life he imagines, and Robert McBain's Chebutykin is so engagingly juvenile for a 60-year-old that the bitterness of his third-act drunken outburst is entirely dissipated.

The cast tend to equate high passions with high volume: not just Natasha's arrogant outbursts, but in later acts Irina's despair and the fury of brother Andrey (with David Antrobus entirely failing to convey, or perhaps to notice, Andrey's descent into drink), are delivered in various shades of roar and howl. The keynote of the production is grief on a personal level, not tristesse on a social or existential one. And it tells the story perfectly well, with a clarity and directness that make it a fine introduction to the play. But Chekhov's great plays are about so much more than narrative, and Walters' production simply isn't.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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