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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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Three Sisters

I’ll admit to initial reservations about a play with subtitles. So much in theatre is held in a glance or slight change of expression – how much might be missed while reading the translations? As it turns out, I worried needlessly. With the subtitles projected onto three screens around and above the stage it was remarkably easy to fall into the pattern of reading the subtitles without missing much of the action and, very soon, I was so engaged with the play I barely noticed I was reading subtitles at all.

Declan Donnellan’s interpretation of Chekov’s Three Sisters is sophisticated and moving. The play’s premise is simple: three sisters living in a small and provincial Russian town long to return to Moscow. Following the sisters over the course of years, their lives and loves complicate and change while Moscow becomes an ever more distant dream. There is a love triangle. There are men in uniform. The play is, by turn, funny, tragic, and poignant.

The acting was uniformly strong but a lot was demanded, in particular, of the female roles. The transformations of Natalia Ivanovna (Ekaterina Sibiryakova) and Irina (Nelli Uvarova) are especially polished: the former moving from an awkward country bumpkin to a self-indulged and controlling wife, while the naiveté and vivaciousness of Irina’s youth descends slowly into weariness and desperation.

Throughout the play music is used to great effect: a guitar, the scratchy sounds of a gramophone, a violin playing in some other room. In the transition between the final acts the combined singing of the cast is beautiful and haunting, caught in half-lights and reaching an emotional depth that the ending, even with its bitter-sweet uncertainty, could never quite regain.

Nevertheless the play is polished, the cast compelling, and I found myself absorbed completely. The disillusionment and despair are here, and it is achingly sad, but the play has also caught a delicate sense of hope. This is the power of Chekhov done well: beautiful, subtle, and intensely human. Reviewed by Jenah Shaw

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