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Three Sisters – New Diorama Theatre, London

Writer: Anton Chekhov, in a version by Ranjit Bolt

Director: Mark Leipacher

Reviewer: Andy Moseley

[rating:3.5]

People who bemoan theatre’s obsession with classical plays often complain they have no contemporary relevance. The Faction’s production of Three Sisters almost immediately shows the complaint as false, as Irina, the youngest sister, espouses the value of work and shows contempt for anyone who doesn’t get up every morning to devote themselves to it. However, this being Chekov, it’s no surprise that by the end she is no longer a poster girl for Ian Duncan Smith, and most of the other characters have also seen their hopes dashed on the rocks of reality.

The Faction are an ensemble company. Three Sisters is part of their 2013 rep season. Their approach is to strip each play down to its basics. Anyone looking for elaborate sets and dramatic lighting should note that this will not be the production for them.

The set consists largely of chairs and sheets imaginatively re-arranged to convey different settings. Likewise, while the ages of the characters range from twenty to eighty, the age of the actors doesn’t get much past thirty, and there is no attempt to age them up. The success of the production is therefore largely dependent on the quality of the script, the quality of the performances, and the vision of the director.

On the first of these, the play delivers. Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation abbreviates the script, but still brings out Chekov’s themes of the search for meaning in life, and the hope and belief that it may be revealed several hundred years hence. By staying largely true to the original text, rather than updating settings and cultural references, it shows both the universality and timelessness of Chekov’s play.

On the other criteria, the production is less successful. All of the actors have their strong moments, with Gareth Fordred as Chebutkin, delivering a particularly effective confession in the second act, and Jonny McPherson as Vershinin, the philosopher soldier who retains his hopes for mankind in the face of a life of domestic misery, giving the most rounded overall performance. The problem is that the strong moments don’t always build to a fully-rounded whole. The life lived in-between scenes isn’t reflected in some of the performances. The changes to Irina, played by Elizabeth Twells, seem more the result of restless youth than bitter experience, and Andrei, the sisters brother, played by Lachlan McCall, doesn’t quite convince as the would-be professor reduced to working for the village council

This may be a result of the lack of a clear directorial vision. While Mark Leipacher thankfully avoids the temptation to make this an overwrought production it is easier to establish what he wasn’t trying to achieve than what he was. Laura Freeman portrays Natasha, Andrei’s wife, as a dumb northerner opposite her more worldly-wise, cosmopolitan sister-in-laws. While she eventually succeeds in creating a truly dislikeable character through an unsympathetic performance, it feels as if she has come from a different production with a different tone from this one.

The mixture of period and current clothes also suggests the absence of a firm idea about how to set the play, while from a more practical point, the number of key moments played out downstage right meant a large part of the audience couldn’t see them over the heads of the front rows.

Overall, if you don’t want big sets, period costumes, and actors being aged-up, this is a good, if disjointed, production. With relatively little additional effort, and the strong cast it has, it could have been a great one.

Runs until 23 February 2013

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