Chekhov always maintained that he wrote comedies, and Max Stafford-Clark's production of Three Sisters, if not quite a laugh a minute, carries a welcome sense of the risibility of many of its characters' actions. Chebutykin's drunken motto, "Does it really matter?", here applies no more strongly to the growing despair of the later acts than to the petty complications of small-town life which bedevil the central family.
Adultery seems to he part of the social fabric. Not only is sister-in-law Natasha carrying on with the council chairman, but Masha and Vershinin's love is plainly consummated. Stafford-Clark glosses over the consequent inconsistency that while the former liaison is the talk of the town, the latter is wilfully ignored.
Brother Andrei's gambling debts, his wife's domestic tyranny, Irina's two competing suitors, even the major fire in the town, are all ultimately inconsequential. The recurring drawing-room debates on how succeeding centuries will view this life are finally played to trivialise both themselves and surrounding events. Despite such pervasive deprecation, however, it is crucial that no-one becomes a simple figure of fun.
This is not an ensemble production, but a patchwork of thwarted individual lives. Whilst Anita Dobson's Olga cruises through the play in an odd, mild languor, Catherine Russell hits perfect pitch as the moody Masha: as often blunt as fiery, she is also able to step back on occasion and regard her passion quizzically. As Baron Tuzenbakh, Barnaby Kay is the essence of good-hearted but naïve idealism. Soliony, his rival for Irina, is played by Lloyd Hutchinson with the weary Ulster cynicism of a Stephen Rea and a face as long as a Lurgan spade. Nigel Terry grounds Colonel Vershinin's self-delusion in his sincerity; Bryan Protheroe keeps Masha's bumbling husband Kulygin on this side of thorough absurdity; Jenna Russell's Natasha harbours cold designs from the first. Only Bernard Gallagher overplays as the bibulous, self-pitying Chebutykin.
Stafford-Clark maps his minefield of comic touches with precision. Andrei's post-proposal embrace with Natasha is interrupted as a partition is flung open from the dining room and a camera's flash pan captures them; Olga solicitously sits her tired old nanny down without relieving her of a huge bundle of clothes; even a fully fledged Cossack dance somehow comes off successfully. Nuances of mood are played throughout with care, deliberation and one or two touches of brilliance, giving a reading as clear and untainted as spring water... until the horrendously overdone final minute, when a consignment of heavy symbolic effluent is gratuitously pumped in, bringing an interesting production to a maddeningly irksome close.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 1995
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage