Almeida Theatre, London – until 1 June 2019
Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters for the Almeida is pared back and relatively traditional. The new adaptation by Cordelia Lynn sounds natural and modern without forcing it, and the setting is a mostly bare stage, supplying the space for the actors to fill. They do this very well, with a succession of distinctive, individual performances.
It is character that makes Chekhov so special. He had an instinct for writing people who feel unfamiliar and just like themselves, without a hint of types. This is partly because he never gives anyone a free pass. All the characters in Three Sisters, without exception, are a combination of loveable and hateful, in different proportions throughout the play. This even applies to the villain of the piece, new wife Natasha, who takes the beloved brother Alexander and destroys him. It is impossible to imagine how anyone could marry happily into such a self-obsessed, clique of a family, although Lois Chimimba delivers a particularly spiky performance.
Yet the sisters, despite their chronic inability to escape themselves and each other are also captivating, usually when they are together as a group. The party scenes, and the scenes where they are just lying around playing cards, seem like brief moments of perfection. Of course, none of the characters realises this and each is ultimately only capable, just, of carrying on – just like the rest of us.
Patsy Ferran as the responsible, motherly teacher Olga is the most powerless to influence her own destiny, drifting helplessly to her destiny as headmistress. Pearl Chanda as Masha seems the most free-spirited, but is the most tied down, through her ill-advised marriage to older teacher and bore Fyodor, played with terrifying familiarity by Elliot Levey. Ria Zmitrowicz, as the youngest sister, gives the stand-out performance in a strong ensemble, her unmistakable voice making Irina sound like a being from another world.
Hildegarde Bechtler’s design tears the floor up halfway through to reveal the soil beneath in a neat coup de theatre, reminiscent of Benedict Andrew’s more revisionist 2012 production at the Young Vic, with its earth floor. Less successfully, Alexander occupies a sort of shelf above the action for much of the play. The design colour codes the sisters, in blue, black and white, as the centrepieces of the decor, surrounded by drifts if men in brown and army khaki. The most colourful thing in the play is the spinning top that famously mesmerises Irina’s birthday party guess, its fascination contained in the knowledge that however much it moves, it is going nowhere. Frecknall’s rich production takes place in a bubble of unreality, both alluring and doomed to burst.