Three Sisters, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

A clock is ticking in the Prozorov household. Minutes pass loudly, inexorably, mercilessly. When the hour noisily announces itself, each chime a dagger for the siblings who count the seconds of their self-imposed exile, the purgatorial tenor of the Southwark Playhouse’s new imagining of Three Sisters is made immediately clear. The century might have changed, but precious little else has. As Tusenbach would put it, “life is always life”.

Anya Reiss’ updating, which transplants the Prozorovs to the modern day, is more striking for its fidelity than its revision. All the outlines of Chekhov’s play are there; only some of the shades have been altered. The provincial Russian town of the original is swapped for a British Embassy in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, with queasy echoes of colonialism, while the semi-mythical escape of Moscow has been replaced by London. The modernising touches, meanwhile, are all feather light: a mobile phone here, a newspaper there. Reiss’ take on the play is even – more so than most versions – loyal to Chekhov’s often neglected comedy, tugging on some of the more absurd strands of its protagonists’ situation.

So how do you answer for the sisters’ immobility when they could just hop on a plane home tomorrow? Wisely, the barriers that Reiss and director Russell Bolam erect are all psychological rather than geographical, the greater ease of movement heightening the characters’ own deadening apathy. Irina’s cry of “I want to go home” at the end of the first half, delivered with wine glass in hand by Holliday Grainger, is more whining than despairing. Here, more than ever, the sisters’ own self-sabotage and navel gazing jump to the fore.

It helps that Three Sisters is one of those plays that offers new aspects to the view on each return visit. Even without a bold, bracing treatment, the play is constantly teasing out new emphases, different scenes or lines snagging on the mind each time. Placed in a modern context, it is the speeches about work that catch the ear, acquiring new resonances in a political landscape where the idea of hard work has become a tool for dividing those whom the system disadvantages. Class relations (and, as an added dimension, racial tensions) are also sharpened, with the largely invisible locals hovering like a ghostly presence at the edges of the production. As Olga, Masha and Irina blindly wallow in their own misery, you almost wish for a yell of “check your privilege”.

In Bolam’s straightforward but polished production, slight traces of the past cling to performances that are otherwise grounded in the here and now. Paul McGann’s quietly commanding Vershinin, voice dripping with authority, could almost be dropped into any era, his futile philosophising barely interrupted, as could Michael Garner’s mildly grumbling Chebutykin. The sisters, meanwhile, are largely as we expect them, even if they have acquired new gadgets. Emily Taaffe is the most impressive of the trio, as a painfully bored Masha who finds a violent release in her passion for Vershinin, while Olivia Hallinan as Olga and Holliday Grainger as Irina are suitably maternal and dreamy respectively.

But the shift of time and location, while working surprisingly well, seems at a loss for what it has to contribute to Chekhov’s existential questioning. The parallels are neat, but only occasionally illuminating. If the play’s timelessness is its point, then the historical context is almost irrelevant. For this reason, Three Sisters often works best when located in a sort of nowhereland, a setting with suggestions of both then and now. While Benedict Andrews’ striking production at the Young Vic effortlessly unmoored itself from time, the subtle yet insistent modernity of this version does not quite convince, in spite of all the elegance of its execution. The play might time travel with impressive ease in Reiss and Bolam’s hands, but the question that lingers underneath it all is why?

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