Thursday 10 April 2014

Three Sisters

Southwark Playhouse, London

Written by Anton Chekhov
In a new version by Anya Reiss
Directed by Russell Bolam

Paul McGann and Holliday Grainger

Anya Reiss’ adaptation of Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse proves to be a remarkable interpretation of the Russian classic. Set in modern times and based around a British Embassy located somewhere in a land in turmoil, Reiss’ sisters are long-term ex-pat Brits who have built their lives 3,000 miles from home, each nurturing either a fondness or a yearning for home. Where Chekhov created a grand Russian sense of bleakness in the sisters' world, so too does Reiss. This production hints at a location in the east but it could be anywhere, the adaptation's structure deftly reflecting the women's hopes and frustrations.

The themes are grand and classic but the setting is intense and opressive. Olivia Hallinan is Olga, the most controlled of the three orphaned sisters, convincing with an understated youthful maturity that provides a modest emotional compass to her siblings, with Russell Bolam having coaxed a subtle allure into the actress' presence. Holliday Grainger plays Irina, a complex woman who attracts the attentions of two soldiers posted to the Embassy. Where Tusenbach (a sometimes awkward performance from David Carlyle) is a devoted paramour, his rival Solyony, forever sanitising his hands such is his familiarity with death, displays a more basic and brutal desire to make Irina his. Reiss skilfully narrates the path that will lead to the play’s tragic denouement.

Masha is the more volatile of the sisters and Emily Taffe imbues her with a provocative fragility. Her frustrations with her local-born husband Kulygin are tangible and through a combination of skilled writing and excellent performance her desire for the soldiers’ commanding officer is a perceptive portrayal of a love tragically stifled.

Paul McGann is Vershinin, the commanding officer, bringing a clipped maturity to the role. He too is trapped in a frustrated and difficult marriage and finds himself craving the emotional succour that the three sisters offer. Whilst he succumbs to his love for Masha, the evident fondness he displays for the world that the three women have created in exile is a gem of understatement in a classy performance. McGann’s name on the bill hints at a star quality performance and he does not disappoint.

Co-producer Danielle Tarento’s hallmark fingerprints of excellence adorn the production. Howard Hudson’s lighting is as ever spot on, enhancing both nuance and location whilst Max Pappenheim’s sound design is also subtly excellent.

Reiss’ perceptive prose is all the more remarkable given her youth. Following her treatment of The Seagull (also recently directed by Bolam at the Southwark Playhouse) she clearly knows how to make Russian poetry accessible to a wired 21st century audience. Her work is peppered with modern cultural references and though they may appall traditional Chekhovian scholars, they are likely to prove invaluable in guiding many of Reiss’ generation towards such classic literature.

Runs to 3rd May 2014

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