Like the proverbial bus, you wait a long time for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters to come along and then two arrive at once. Hot on the heels of the Almeida’s contemporary, uncluttered version is the Maly Drama Theatre’s production at the Vaudeville, performed in Russian with English surtitles. Though this follows the original text more closely, it is far from a traditional account with some radical directorial innovations.
The setting is a remote garrison town in early 20th-century Russia where the three Prozorov sisters and their brother feel their lives are passing them by, one year after the death of their army general father and eleven years after being ‘exiled’ from Moscow. It’s a story of lost ideals and failed love, but also stoicism and hope for future generations.
Veteran director Lev Dodin (who has astonishingly led the Maly for 36 years) emphasises the play’s sudden mood swings from introspective despair to vodka-fuelled exuberance, presenting not so much a tragicomedy as a black farce which goes for the emotional extremes. While he captures the absurdity of the characters’ predicaments, it sometimes borders on grotesque. And the romantic liaisons are less than convincing, especially a clumsy grappling between the oldest, unmarried sister Olga and her brother-in-law Kuligin.
Alexander Borovsky’s spare set features a facade of a wooden house with windowless holes – as if the family home has been hollowed out – which moves forward after each act as if blocking out any escape.
The St Petersburg-based company has an international reputation for its ensemble acting, and this comes across strongly here, with the cast often positioned in tableau-like groups. Though a few of the actors seem a little old for their parts, they powerfully convey the sense of desperation behind the ennui with a distinctively Russian passion.
Three Sisters, Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand WC2R 0NH, £22.50-£127.50. Until 29 June.
Last Updated 24 June 2019