On a screen I watch as Alexey takes a photograph of Irina’s birthday party, which flickers into a larger-than-life projection across the Almeida’s exposed brickwork. Incandescently filtered, the characters look vivid and happy – they are not. Before being led through to the auditorium itself (yes, I may have been a tad late), I can’t help but reflect on my unintended introduction to Chekhov’s Three Sisters currently playing at The Almeida. That of a filtered expectation of what happiness and fulfilment look like, crafted out of people who are desperate to find it themselves.
Three Sisters was written in 1900 but this version, directed by Rebecca Frecknall (Summer and Smoke) and in a new translation by Cordelia Lynn (Lela & Co, One For Sorrow), feels really fresh, modern and believable. It is a behemoth of a play, but each narrative thread feels whole and interesting, woven together in a manner which really draws the viewer in. The play is almost entirely set within the home of the eponymous sisters, in a remote Russian town which plays host to a cascade of house-guests and friends. All are connected by an intangible desire for something greater – whether it be in their careers, relationships or society itself – all are striving to ascend to brighter futures, or reclaim some spark of their past. A moment in which we observe the whole cast freeze to focus on a birthday present – a spinning top frenziedly whirring and yet stationery in the same moment – highlights the deep-set inertia in their lives. This plays out on an isolated grey square of a stage, an island upon which a piano sits but is never played – a silent motif of unrecognised potential.
What Three Sisters does best is strike a tone. It seems to exist in some sort of a dream state where, with strong use of music, lighting and movement, we are propelled from one human crisis to the next without resolution but without losing heart. It’s powerfully acted: Irina’s rallying against her life and purposelessness in particular is truly moving and unsettling; and it balances these moments with caricatures of optimistic humour. By allowing us to connect with the characters’ motivations and desires our empathy is stirred, but then the jarring repetition of ideologies by characters such as Alexander (who assure us that a beautiful society is just around the corner, that life is constantly getting better despite it ostensibly becoming worse) disconnects us ever so slightly from the belief that these people are real. By leaving the audience in this half-state of seeing the characters as people, of seeing ourselves and our trials in theirs, but also as metaphors, as analogies, Frecknall’s play leaves us in a nostalgic nether-region.
This is – I think – a brilliant achievement. I leave the theatre feeling the conclusion of the play, instead of trying to think it out. It’s a wonderfully compelling evening.
Image: Marc Brenner