To begin with a hideously cost-accounting observation: Bill Bryden's production is, at three hours and twenty-two minutes on press night, the longest Three Sisters I have seen. This does not, however, make it the slowest, although in its early stages it threatens to be. Bryden's intention is to create the appearance of simplicity: keep things straightforward and big enough to be grasped, and thereby tell the whole story. And so he and his cast do: we miss little or nothing of the moods and moments of Chekhov's play.
Except, that is, for the majority of the comedy. Even with a fire raging through the town in Act Three, even with Baron Tusenbach's death in an offstage duel on the eve of his marriage to youngest sister Irina, Chekhov considered it a comedy. In Birmingham, we have numerous laughs – at Russell Hunter's amiably bumbling Chebutykin, at the affected gruffness of Jasper Britton's Solyony, at Trevor Ray's scene-stealing, muttering, deaf old Ferapont – but they are the laughs which leaven a conventionally and wrongly over-melancholy interpretation of the play. In short: slow, steady and no surprises.
Mike Poulton's new translation has, it seems, been doctored to add another ten years to Colonel Vershinin's age (from 42 to 52) so that he can plausibly be played by Charles Dance. In another small but meaningful touch, however, brother Andrey's wife Natasha is derided as a "grocer's daughter". Natasha is both ridiculous and tyrannical, implicitly assuming not simply command but ownership of the family house as the play progresses. I must confess that in the opening minutes, I wondered how Natasha could be made to seem less intelligent than Susan Wooldridge's Olga – a strange performance in which slowness and simplicity begin to verge on mental impairment. However, Poulton and Eve Matheson seize on the possibilities of imbuing Natasha with hints of that other grocer's daughter, the one from Grantham. Matheson's outbursts are cold rather than hot, filled with the arrogance of one who recognises no possibility of being gainsaid; her condemnation of ageing nanny Anfisa – "What's the point of her?" – is pure Thatcher.
Bryden's is very much an ensemble production in which the sisters themselves (Wooldridge, Felicity Dean as Masha and Rachel Pickup as Irina) do not command centre stage; consequently, the most engaging portrayal is probably Alan Cox's of the naively idealistic Baron Tusenbach. However, the keynote of the evening should be that contained in Chebutykin's grimly humorous, dismissive ditty: "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay/We'll all be dead one day..." What, after all, is one baron, one fire-ravaged street, one military garrison, one dashed hope of return to Moscow more or less? To preserve such matters in the amber of Chekhovian Significance – however clear that amber may be – is to rob them of their animation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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