Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 1 March, 2002


Now that Reza de Wet's twenty-years-on sequel Three Sisters Two has joined Chekhov's original in repertoire at the Orange Tree in Richmond (with largely different casts), the pair of pieces achieve an emotional and tonal balance. But it's a balance achieved on a strictly mathematical basis, by averaging out the values of each, rather than by providing a unified overall picture.

Sam Walters' production of the Chekhov play 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 arriviste sister-in-law Natasha and at Vershinin and Tusenbach's repeated taste for passing the time in the sisters' provincial salon by "philosophising".

However, the trouble is that almost everyone who should be more or less annoying Masha's schoolmaster husband Kulygin, Tusenbach the idealistic baron who eulogises the theoretical dignity of labour, the ageing, lazy doctor Chebutykin is in fact played as rather engaging, so there is no sense of the sterility of the life of this provincial gentry.

The cast tend to equate high passions with high volume, with a number of outbursts in the latter two acts delivered in various shades of roar and howl unnecessary in the Orange Tree's intimate space, as Walters should know after running it for all these years. The keynote of the production is grief on a personal level, not tristesse on a social or existential one.

De Wet picks up the story in 1920: the Prozorovs now live in only a few rooms of their subdivided house, and the ageing refugee White Army general Vershinin has in effect become a new Chebutykin but still exercises an implausible romantic magnetism; when Masha arrives from Moscow with the news that her Red Army lover has fallen into disfavour, the family finally prepare to move back to the capital to escape a Leninist purge. The third and fourth acts are at least as much The Cherry Orchard as The Three Sisters, with drunken plain-speaking to the sounds of a ball (a scene in which director Auriol Smith goes several better, or at least louder, than her husband with the Chekhov), and a fourth act of rushed preparations for departure and an old servant left alone in the abandoned property.

Where characters in the Chekhov are played too sympathetically, Smith's production is almost entirely devoid of such engagement. Time has not mellowed Natasha, and has only further embittered her husband Andrey; Jeffry Wickham's Vershinin is revealed as hollow; Irina continues shining-eyed long past her best, augmented in this respect by Andrey and Natasha's daughter Sofja; Olga (Anna Carteret) has become a desiccated, myopic snob prone to tetchy headaches; even Belinda Lang's Masha, try as she might to glue the family together, keeps betraying an acquired metropolitan shallowness. This production is nothing but social critique, with the personal dimension either perfunctory or implausible.

Put the two productions in a blender and you'd get an effective, comprehensive picture of the Prozorov family; looking at one or the other is like looking at one half of a stereoscopic image it seems to make sense in itself, but the crucial perspective is missing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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