Olga, Masha and Irina are the Prozorov sisters, who desperately want to return to Moscow after the death of their father. Theirs is a life of want, but not quite fulfillment. Remembering Tri sestry as a lasting example of Chekovian listlessness and longing, I had all sorts of expectations and fears prior to the show. The chief of these being a great performance that would touch the nerve of exacerbation I myself felt, and that the chaos of the original would be lost. The play, described by Dodin as Chekov’s ‘most unharmonious’, has been directed and produced for audiences at the Burton Taylor Studio with an appreciation for the confusion, pace – advertised as it is as a drama in four acts – and the sheer frustration of the characters, particularly the sisters.
The show defines the sisters by both their loneliness, and their constant longing for Moscow – their lives characterised by despair and pretense, as best illustrated in the trailer, that opened with the opening credit shots of the house from the Olivier and Sichel film adaptation. The sisters occupy a single couch, listless and staring off wistfully as the men in their lives exist around them. Around, about, but not with – this is a tale of wrong matches and compromise and disappointment – and Small Fry has done a praiseworthy job.
The stage set up was ideal, and a single rug worked together with two shelves and a few lines of hanging clothes to create a sparing setting for all the four acts. The audience and the actors flowed with synergy that can only be brought about by the close contact of an hour and a half, from the very first scene of Olga (Laura Henderson Childs) snipping away at some wildflowers that she arranged into a vase, to the breakdowns and tears to come. Without revealing more details of the plot, the highest commendations must be awarded to Masha (Martha West), Chebutykin (Eddie H.M.) and Natasha (Ruby Gold), for rousing and commanding performances that brought their characters to life. Natasha is as rambunctious, explosive and intolerable as the original – and the double role played by Ruby Gold to depict Tuzenbach too is thoughtful and well directed as is the decision to have the sisters alternate between the character of their beloved old maid.
The cast is utilised intelligently, and the entrances and exits coordinated, such that the show runs smoothly. The activity is punctuated by Olga’s flux between glaring optimism and brief moments of despair, Chebutykin’s adoration for the girls and little eccentricities, and Masha’s dour countenance (only countered by her white dress). Kudos too to the depicted relationship between Irina (Millie Tupper) and Olga, which comes across as tender and sisterly, as to the red-rimmed eyes and wasted figure of Andrey (Charlie Barlow), who captures the essence of a passionate man, forced to while away in the dreary provinces.
The lack of sound, save for the very start and very end of the performance was inconspicuous and comfortable, peppered as it was by Chebutykin’s coughing and Kulygin’s (Sam Scruton) endless search for Masha. A minimalist use of music was complimented by a bright set of lights for the bookended acts, while those for the scenes post fire take on a yellow orange hue, bathing the scene in a dream like, intense mood. For a play with so much hope for the future, misplaced optimism and philosophising, it can be agreed that it is a rather tedious production – so much so that I wanted a slightly earlier curtain fall, either because of how deeply the performances had made me feel, or how long the script took to come to a conclusion.
The loss of memory is an aspect that carried through the show, with the old doctor forgetting the details of his practice, and the sisters forgetting what life was like in Moscow. Loss itself is a prevalent theme, as the Imperial Army moves on, and the sisters are alone to lament their situation. This is a play that delighted, moved and enticed me, from the tantalizing trailer to the very performances. Strong direction, economical use of space, fine acting and a classic – ‘the band plays gaily’ indeed.