Anya Reiss’ new adaptation of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ translates the struggles of the Prozorov family, as they attempt to find meaning in an empty society, from a provincial garrison town in turn of the century Russia to what the script names simply as ‘Near a British Embassy, overseas, now’. Reiss’ ‘Three Sisters’ may keep the Russian names but her middle class ex-Londoners have an iPad, break into a brilliant karaoke rendition of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, and suck on trendy ecigarettes. The play opens with the youngest of the Three Sisters, Irina, flicking absent-mindedly through a Vogue.
Three beautiful orphans – Irina (Holliday Grainger), Olga (Olivia Hallinan), and Masha (Emily Taaffe) -and their fat brother Andrey (Thom Tuck) find themselves expats stranded in a country that isn’t home after the deaths of their parents. Quite where is left to our imagination but the conspicuous army presence and local touches suggest somewhere in the Middle East. We follow the sisters on a tragic downward spiral of degeneration as their social circle of soldiers, Masha’s regrettable husband (adorable and misguided Kulygin, played by Tom Ross-Williams), and a couple of questionable father figures begins to fall apart and their money is squandered by Andrey’s online gambling. The sisters are bored, lamenting with expletives that they are wasting their time and education with an idle and pointless lifestyle. Tortured by regrets, they yearn for London. Only they can’t leave without Andrey or a husband from the UK: despite their modernity, the sisters still retain the limitations Chekhov forced upon them in the original. They are thoroughly disappointed with their lot. This is potentially problematic in terms of audience sympathy as their lot is actually pretty comfortable – removed of the historical context of the fall of the Russian bourgeoisie, the sisters’ strife becomes a bit of a ‘First World Problem’ and so doesn’t seem half so pressing. Until the drama kicks in the girls just seem spoilt and a little bit whiny.
Yet thankfully the drama does kick in and despite these modern touches which, in the hands of anyone else, might have trivialised the play, Reiss’ ‘Three Sisters’ is stunning. Despite being just 22 years old Reiss’ script, though a little overstated in places, is incredibly accomplished and a brilliant rendition of the original. It is thoughtful and well-crafted, building tension with a strong pace until it reaches the unbearable conclusion. The cast are incredible too, particularly the titular trio. Holliday Grainger (Irina), Olivia Hallinan (Olga), and Emily Taaffe (Masha) all pack a real, and devastating, emotional punch. Fragile, shaking Olga and Masha, wailing in agony, are goose-bump inducing. The cast is lead by its ladies: Emily Dobbs is also strong as Andrey’s vulgar wife Natasha. The best male performances come from Joe Sims as Solyony, a soldier with a dark side and Paul McGann as Vershinin, Masha’s lover agonising over his suicidal wife.
The production’s sparse set (designed by Anthony Lamble) is highly effective, particularly the large door which frames scenes and makes the theme of leaving ever more present. The ominous clock ticking has a lot of cliché potential but comes off perfectly in performance.
Essentially two hours of drinking and philosophising about the unhappiness and futility of life, ‘Three Sisters’ is bleak. But it is also an undeniably compelling play. Reiss’ fresh take on the classic brings ‘Three Sisters’, and Chekhov, to a whole new audience and, for that alone, is a very important piece of theatre.