An early sketch by comedy group The League of Gentlemen concerned a couple of theatregoers behaving as if at a soccer match, and responding to Chekhov with a terrace-style chant of "YER'LL NE-VER GET TO MOSCOW!" Facing my third encounter in as many months with the playwright's fictional Prozorov family, I was initially tempted to do likewise. But Patrick Sandford's production of Three Sisters at Southampton's Nuffield Theatre deserves rather more respect.
It has its problems, to be sure. The casting of Imogen Stubbs as middle sister Masha smacks a little of vanity: she catches the character's brooding romanticism, but neither she nor Serena Gordon as her supposedly elder sister, the sidelined schoolmistress Olga, can overcome Stubbs' now mature bearing which simply makes her feel like the senior sibling. In contrast, Robert Morgan's continuing youthful air as an actor robs Masha's foolishly pompous husband Kulygin of some of the weight of his years, and is not helped by the most ludicrous moustachios I have seen for some time in a serious drama. In the latter two acts, though, Morgan comes into his own, excellently portraying the deputy head's almost adolescent desperation as he tries to pretend that Masha's love affair with the departing Colonel Vershinin has not affected their marital happiness.
The role of sister-in-law Natasha is often a thankless one, with a temptation to overplay her stupidity, selfishness and "petit-bourgeoise" airs. Niky Wardley admirably resists: her Natasha is still an unsympathetic character, but she makes no misguided attempts to help the writing along in nudging us to this evaluation. Likewise Gareth Thomas's amiably useless old doctor Chebutykin, refreshingly devoid of old-buffer mannerisms, and indeed portraying a discreet but distinct loathing both of the offstage duel in the final act as the garrison is leaving town and of the end of an era which it signals.
Sandford's programme notes reject the view that the play is "about the rich living on their country estates and doing little or nothing except talk." This too could set off warning bells, but amid the frustrated yearnings and the deep sense of civic duty, this strain thankfully persists in welcome balance. In particular, Gerrard McArthur portrays the most drawling, patrician Baron Tuzenbakh I can recall, yet without devaluing the sincerity of his illusions about the dignity of simple labour; it is as if Bertie Wooster had a social conscience, and is a disarming achievement.
Chekhov's full-length plays can make the most demands of any in the classical repertoire from a cast as a whole, requiring as they do a large number of distinct and thoughtful individual performances at the same time as a coherent ensemble character. It is almost impossible to score a full house. But although a handful of the major players here are on the anodyne side, none of them works against an overall tone which does comprehensive justice to the play's complexity of mood.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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