The most striking thing about Cheek By Jowl’s production of Three Sisters and perhaps the predominant reason why it is a must-see, is that it was performed as Chekhov intended, in his native language of Russian.
You may be wondering how a foreign language performance could play out to a predominately English-speaking audience. Well, there was a subtly place LED display panel centred above the stage; although it did not disturb the integrity of the overall aesthetics of the staging we would advise you to perhaps acquire seats in the dress circle, the stalls could possibly leave you with a crick in your neck! Though it required you to be mentally alert, having your eyes glued to the screen, it was not completely necessary to understand the play. This was proven by a minor technical glitch when the subtitles stopped working. Though slightly problematic for the English audience who were left momentarily bewildered, the quality of the acting meant that reliance on language translation was not always as necessary as we expected.
The play revolves around a displaced family made of three sisters, Olga, Masha (formally known as Maria), Irina and their brother Andrei. The sisters look to their brother to lift them from their now futile existence caused by the trappings of a privileged Moscow education yet wasted by their living in provincial Russia. The arrival of the officer Vershinin and the Army in the town brings a fresh wave of hope for the young family, yet as the play progresses their dreams for a better life falter as reality sets in.
Director Declan Donnellan’s talented Russian cast convey a myriad of emotions. The expression of anger, pain, despair and depression was apparent through the use of the actor’s bodies, exaggerated facial expression and tone of voice, all of which were emotions that the subtitles alone could not reveal.
The performance was shaky to begin with but with good reason, its late start was due to an actress, playing the part of the eldest sister Olga, falling ill on the day and the company having to fly in a replacement (Aleksandra Everitt) barely hours before curtain call. Everitt’s ability to take on the role at such short notice although with a script in hand throughout the performance was admirable and once the play was under way it was in no way a focal point or a distraction from the entirety of the play.
The actress playing middle sister Masha, Irina Greneva portrayed her eccentric, tormented personality to perfection. She was exceptional and became a pivotal force in the play, with her convincing emotional outbursts of humour, pain and love. She lurched from depressed ramblings – quoting pieces of seemingly irrelevant literature – to uncontrollable bouts of piercing laughter.
The youngest of the three, Irina, seemed more committed to the idealism that was initially shared by her sisters and expressed by their longing to return to Moscow. Indeed, the repetition of this desire for Moscow suggested powerfully their blind belief that simply returning there would remedy their inability to be satisfied in their present existence. However, despite the tragic love affairs and missed opportunities the play was sometimes lightened by brief moments of humour; this comic relief came in the welcome form of the detested sister-in-law Natalia and the soldiers.
Philosophy was never far from the surface and was overtly used as a pastime by the characters in moments of boredom; Vershinin laboured throughout over the idea of existence and concluded towards the end of the play that, “life is hard”. Despite the continual themes of loss and love, it is still primarily a play that comments on the nature of social change and the displacement felt as a result of modernisation. Though set in Russia this sentiment was felt by many across Europe during this period and since, and in some ways this makes Chekhov timeless. When the characters tried to predict what the future had to hold, many of the frustrations and disappointments they experienced were still relevant and unchanging today. As much as this irony raised a laugh, it also drew out the darkest undertones of the play.
Three Sisters at the Theatre Royal is an opportunity not to be missed. The performance in Russian by Cheek By Jowl was a bold move and is something you had to work hard at as an audience member but it was certainly worth it. Although not a completely polished performance due to the unforeseen absence, the cast responded well to the pressure of the last minute change and deservedly received rapturous applause.
Three Sisters is on until Sunday 12th June, student tickets are £7.50.
Rosie English and Melanie Solomon