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Chekhov’s play Three Sisters raises some seriously philosophical questions, as much when it was first performed in 1901 as it does today. Where do we find happiness? Does happiness belong to the past or the future? What’s the meaning of our existence, full as it is of unbearable suffering? What is it that makes our lives complete?
Brought to the Almeida Theatre by Rebecca Frecknall (who directed an award-winning production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke last year), Chekhov’s classic is staged with a simple, unpretentious aesthetics, on a stage peppered with dim lights and unassuming props. Stripped of anything superfluous, the bare set design seems a metaphor for the empty existence of Chekhov’s characters.
The play revolves around the life of Olga (Patsy Ferran), Masha (Pearl Chanda) and Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz), three sisters living in an unidentified provincial town in late 19th century Russia. Their deepest desire is to go back to Moscow, where they are from and were raised. In their imagination, Moscow shines bright like a mirage, exerting a magnetic force, standing as a place where all the troubles of the present and the pervasive lack of meaning could finally come to an end. The opportunity arises when an army of soldiers happens to visit their otherwise bored-to-death town. Clinging to the hope that the army will bring about change, in one way or another, the sisters are made to realise that everything they are holding on to (a teaching career for Olga, an illegitimate affair for Masha, and plans for the future for Irina) are all vain enterprises.
Relationships are central to Three Sisters, and the cast succeeds in portraying them with remarkable authenticity, though not always in the most obvious moments. The chemistry between Masha and her lover Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Vershinin (Peter McDonald) is most real and credible not so much when they are together alone, but when they have to act in front of other people, in their furtive glances, their stolen caresses, and in Masha’s heart-breaking reaction after Vershinin’s departure. Similarly, Irina’s list of unhappy suitors and frustrated plans for marriage come to life most vividly in her rejections, which drip with genuine and thoroughly believable awkwardness. Trying to keep the family and the household together, Olga acts with admirable pragmatism, but it’s when she’s at the mercy of her tyrannical sister-in-law Natasha (Lois Chimimba) that she’s truly memorable in her helplessness. All three sisters offer incredibly strong performances, giving to the play its raison d’être.
The plot is interspersed with moments of philosophical depth, where all characters voice their hopes for the present and the future (or lack thereof). These meditative pauses are almost always welcome, but especially so when they are illuminated and expanded upon by poetic touches of physical theatre: an absorbingly beautiful spinning top that hums, a riveting tipsy dance, Irina’s pirouetting in the snow, the solemn unveiling of a mat of soil on stage. Admittedly challenging in length and subject matter, the pace of the play is engaging in the first act, but slows down in the second, ironically just after the emergency of the break out of a fire. The boredom of the sisters becomes uncomfortably real, for the audience as well. Things quicken again towards the end, culminating in a dramatic finale, where the sisters embrace tightly to face the sheer brutality of life.
I thought that much of what the play had to say rang true to our contemporary life. The idea of the dignifying role of work is relevant to the generation of us “lazy” millennials (if anything, to identify with it), and so does the constant search for the meaning of existence as a whole, not to mention the idea that love can be found in plays and novels, but when it happens to you it’s as if no-one has even been in love before. For a receptive audience, there’s much to be taken away to mull over.
Three Sisters is a painful, yet sublime portrayal of the “breathlessness” of life. No one is spared, happiness is a thing for the future – if anything at all – and insignificance is all-encompassing. But it is only by being presented with the collapsing dreams of others that we can look at our own lives with a new, more lucid perspective.
Three Sisters plays at the Almeida Theatre until 1 June.