Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 25 January, 2010

For the sesquicentenary of Chekhov’s birth (on Friday 29th), a curious experience. As a company, Filter have amassed a reputation for stripping plays down and re-assembling them... but what they have done with Christopher Hampton’s limber, contemporary translation of Three Sisters is the stripping-down, at least in terms of staging, but no reconfiguration whatever that I can see. Discounting relatively incidental elements such as live-mixed entr’acte musical collages of material ranging from Belle and Sebastian to “The Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly” and (rather undersused) microphones onstage for occasional asides or undertones, what Filter and co-director Sean Holmes give us is a more or less straight performance of the play on a junk-shop set which is marooned on the Lyric’s otherwise ostentatiously bare stage. This is especially apparent in the latter two acts. In Act Three, set in an attic room, the furniture defines a tiny island centre-stage with the rest in blackness, and sometimes one sister or another, when confronted with something they do not want to hear, retreats literally into the outer darkness; the final act has nothing on the stage except a swing and a seat far upstage on which sits the muttering Chebutykin.
The effect is strangely paradoxical. On the one hand, it is as if the various characters’ idle musings on posterity have been truly enacted, and we see exactly what will survive of them and their lives in the far future, without any of the attendant trappings. On the other, I for one had the sensation that this relict amounted to surprisingly little. This is not to fault a clutch of solid and engaged performances, including Romola Garai as the semi-bleak Masha, John Lightbody as a Vershinin who speaks impulsively, whether to “theorise” or to declare his heart, and even Jim Bywater as the old servant Ferapont, here transformed into a superannuated, crash-helmeted courier of local authority papers. Yet, watching that small island of life amid the empty space of that Frank Matcham-designed theatre, I felt that Filter had captured all the criticism in Chekhov’s unblinking dramatic gaze without any of the compassion which balances it. Yet I cannot with certainty say that this is a deficiency of the production rather than of my perception, this sense of its being engaged but worryingly unengaging.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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