Rebecca Frecknall returns to the Almeida, following her revelatory staging of Tennessee Williams’ play Summer and Smoke. But while her take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters contains moments of poignancy and beauty, as well as some dazzling performances, it doesn’t quite hang together.
Three Sisters reunites Frecknall with Patsy Ferran, who deservedly won an Olivier for her astonishing performance as uptight minister’s daughter Alma in Summer and Smoke. Ferran plays Olga, the oldest and most pragmatic of the three, orphaned Prozorov sisters. She gives a performance of typical delicacy and warmth, but her role is smaller than that of cynical Masha (Pearl Chanda) and buoyant Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz).
Following their father’s death, the siblings are marooned in a remote Russian garrison town, pining for the cosmopolitan Moscow of their childhood, and coming to terms with the dizzying uncertainty of the future. As the years pass their spirits are slowly crushed by disappointment and the grind of working life, the light leaks out of them.
Masha, who married young to teacher Fyodor (Elliot Levey), a man she once thought wise but who now bores her profoundly, develops a passion for the married Vershinin (Peter McDonald, gently excellent), a superficially considerate man who dismisses his suicidal wife as “a worthless human being”. Chanda is haughty and languid, exuding ennui from every pore. Yet there are also occasional flashes of terror behind her eyes, that this is it, this is all – this is her existence.
Irina, the youngest of the three, yearns the hardest for Moscow. Zmitrowicz (dynamite in Dance Nation) perfectly captures the sense of someone navigating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Her movements are girlish to begin with – she gets giddy over some coloured pencil, and spins wistfully in the snow – but gradually she begins to harden, to develop a shell, though she remains resistant to the idea of marrying.
In a nice detail, their brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith) spends much of his time perched above the stage on a shelf. He’s removed from their world and their concerns, yet his choices and recklessness with money directly impact them.
The chief strength of Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation is the way it makes Chekhov’s characters feel like contemporary young women, vibrating with frustration at being stuck in unsatisfying jobs and lumbered with unsatisfying men. It would be trite to call this approach ‘millennial Chekhov’, but not inaccurate.
Lynn does this incredibly well, but it sometimes backfires. Untethered from social context, it can make the sisters feel petulant, blinkered and dismissive. Yet her update also delivers moments of capsizing sadness; when Alan Williams’ doctor casually remarks that “One day I looked up and realised my whole life had passed”, it’s quietly devastating.
Hildegard Bechtler’s minimalist set is peppered with chairs and Anglepoise lamps, plus one solitary piano that remains tellingly unplayed. In the last act, the floor is rolled back to reveal a carpet of earth. Though not everything works in Frecknall’s production, when it burns it burns bright.