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A CurtainUp Review
Three Sister


Father loaded us down with education.
--- Andrey
Three Sisters
Anna Maxwell Martin as Irina
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Hard on the heels of Michael Blakemore's production of Three Sisters with the magnificent Kristin Scott-Thomas, comes Katie Mitchell's intelligent and involving production for the Lyttelton at the National with a new translation by Nicholas Wright author of Vincent in Brixton and Cressida. Does London need another Three Sisters this summer? At three and a half hours, this is one of the longest Three Sisters in living memory. "I like my Chekhov played slow"quipped a wag before the play started. This Three Sisters with stellar ensemble performances is one worthy of Nicholas Hytner's starry opening season regime.

Taking as her theme, time as devourer of everything, Katie Mitchell emphasises the powerless of the three sisters to do anything about their lives passing without event. I have a few misgivings about some of the freeze frame posing of the first two acts when some portentous moment causes the actors onstage to stand stock still while eerie music plays, a clock chimes and sometimes wind blows the curtains into the room. It seems a rather heavy handed way of making the point that change is on its way. I did however like the sense of awkwardness present in the first act, the idea that the three women are suspended in time waiting for something to happen so that they can go back to Moscow.

What happens instead is the arrival of Colonel Vershinin (Ben Daniels), someone they can talk about Moscow with, and here is where Katie Mitchell's production seems to score. Vershinin starts the play as excessively mannered, a socialite, an over the top gallant. He ends it as essentially superficial, insensitive, a disappointment, an orator who likes hearing the sound of his own voice. Maybe he is the real reason why his wife is so unhappy? Daniels is both the smooth operator and the handsome guest.

By contrast to the caddish Vershinin, Eve Best's Masha has the power to move with her heart rending howl of despair as Vershinin leaves. Her forgiving husband, Kulygin (Angus Wright), with his tedious habit of interjecting Latin phrases into his conversation, makes matters worse by reacting to the affair with tolerance. There will no excuse for Masha to leave him. I very much liked too Lorraine Ashbourne's Olga, the eldest of the three sisters, tired and brittle from the very first. The subtext is that Kulygin has married the wrong sister, when in the nursery scene, Olga and Kulygin come close to kissing.

Anna Maxwell-Martin's Irina completes the three. She is a fresh young actress building up her repertoire. Here she has to fight off the obnoxious Solyony (Tim McMullan) who almost assaults her sexually. There is little doubt that the doctor Chebutykin (Patrick Godfrey) is Irene's's father. Paul Hilton is almost too sympathetic as the Baron (one of the few characters who looks towards the political future) so that Irene's choice to marry him is not quite the disappointment it should be. Dominic Rowan's Andrey is outnumbered by his sisters and Lucy Whybrow's Natasha is probably taking revenge for the sisters' early unkind behaviour towards her. As Andrey tries to talk to his sisters after the fire, they concentrate on unbuttoning their corsets and getting ready for bed, instead of listening to him. He is left sobbing.

Vicki Mortimer's spacious, light and airy set with its big windows, filled with flower vases of blue and white flowers, is perfect. It is lit naturally, when in the later scenes, some of the play takes place in low light, an authentic recreation of life before the first world war. The seasons are well conveyed with snow falling behind the windows in an evocation of the Russian winter.

There is so much to like in this production. Katie Mitchell allows Chekhov's humour to lighten parts of the play so that there is contrast with tragedy. Irina and Andrey's improvised dance rendition of Swan Lake delights. Curiously, when Olga and Irene are talking in the bedroom, Masha, hidden under the bedclothes, suddenly sits up in bed, gets up and without a word, leaves the room, in a stately and self absorbed exit. This Three Sisters overflows with atmosphere and engages at every level.

Editor's Note: This is probably one of those plays critics don't mind seeing again and -- as evident from the frequent review links in our Checkhov Background Page.

Three Sisters
Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Katie Mitchell

Starring: Eve Best, Ben Daniels
With: Dominic Rowan, Lorraine Ashbourne, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Antonia Pemberton, Beth Fitzgerald, Fiona Mason, Patrick Godfrey, Paul Hilton, Tim McMullan, Thomas Arnold, Peter Eastland, Sean Jackson, Angus Wright, Lucy Whybrow, Peter Needham, Jessica Green
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Music: Paul Clark
Choreography: Kate Flatt
Sound: Gareth Fry
Running time: Three hours 30 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 4th October 2003 but in repertory with Jumpers and Jerry Springer - the Opera.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th August 2003 Performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo)
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