Friday, 23 December 2016

Three’s a charm… Three Sisters (2014), Southwark Playhouse

Moscow… London… why do we always feel we’ll be happier somewhere else?

I last saw Chekhov’s Three Sisters with an all-Redgrave cast at the Royal Court in the early nineties when it impressed as a deeply-theatrical, “classic” drama in every sense.

This new version has been given a potentially controversial updating by Anya Reiss which shifts the action from disintegrating Tsarist Russia to a British family marooned in an un-named middle eastern state (somewhere like Yemen). The family are the son and daughters of a diplomat who has died leaving them having to fend for themselves whilst all around is in turmoil. They dream of returning to London but there are few glimpses that their struggle to survive and stay happy in this once-familiar and now alienating world will end.
Holliday Grainger, Olivia Hallinan and Emily Taafe
The play retains its powerful existential questioning and whilst the language has changed, it still feels very Russian: passionate, intelligent and more than a little sad. The sisters compromise their lives and love in order to survive whilst their brother marries cheaply, drinks in self-absorption and gambles their money away online (how decadent do you want).

The brother Andrei is well-played by Thom Tuck – smothered by the expectations of leading his family and realising his own potential he ducks and only succeeds in becoming ashamed in a marriage of inconvenience with the domineering Natasha (Emily Dobbs). His sisters are braver, Olga, superbly played by Olivia Hallinan, is their compass, coaching them in hope and encouraging pragmatism: what else would you do? She makes ends meet by teaching, ultimately taking on the role of headmistress at the local school – trapped in a career poverty cycle.

Middle sister Masha (Emily Taaffe) is unhappily married to the willing but hopeless husband who’s cringe-worthy attempts to compensate for their lost intimacy are to no avail as she has an intense affair with old family friend, the extremely married Captain Vershinin (a marvellous Paul McGann).
Masha and her dashing Captain
The youngest, Irina (Holliday Grainger), dreams of finding true love back in London and is, heart-breakingly, not yet ground down by tragedy and disappointment… not yet. Olga encourages her to marry a man she likes but doesn’t love as he offers her the chance of escape. We’re almost won over by her logic and smiling warmth but is this really the way forward?

In the intimate space of the Southwark Theatre, the action is amplified with actors mere feet away from the audience – especially if, like us, you’re brave enough to sit in the front row. It was very moving to see the performances at such close quarters and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one moved to tears by the emoting of the three leads.

Hallinan, Taaffe and Grainger rip through their roles with intelligence and grace. Sometimes you feel you’re intruding on their private thoughts so convinced are you by their skill. It’s a very human response to the proximity….
Paul McGann, Olivia Hallinan, Emily Taaffe (chair) and Holliday Grainger'(floor)
Mr McGann also graced the stage with his unique energy, he even crouched like a soldier at one point: poised for action, focusing himself on every situation his Vershinin is described by Reiss as the only truly honest one along with Masha, but you can see how subtle changes in inflection could reveal a more disingenuous streak seen in other productions. But we want him to be heroic and proof that deep love exists in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Whatever you make of the re-mixed play, it still asks difficult questions and leaves you thinking for days… theatre on the ground and in the raw, feet away from people genuinely feeling their way through a play: you can’t fail to respond, to empathise… you act and you react. You won’t get this up in the gods on Shaftsbury Avenue!

Thank you cast and crew!

IThankyou Rating *****

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