Three Sisters, Union Theatre

“Nothing turns out the way we planned.”

Though 2016 has been riddled with despair, 2017 looks worse. With the fascist post-truth movement on the rise and Trump taking office in a matter of days, there is little to look forward to. Far-off lands look like alluring utopias, and it’s easy to fall prey to the lingering question of what the point is of carrying on in the face of all this societal disintegration. With existentialism one of the cruxes of the story, this Three Sisters is a bleak echo of present day narcissism and hopelessness. Phil Willmott’s staging of a new, pared back translation doesn’t stagnate, though. Combined with a strong cast, this is production uncannily suits our times.

Tracey Lett’s streamlined version of the play still retains the essence and context of Chekhov’s text, but provides a lighter, less wordy update. There isn’t the dated language that bogs down the story’s progress, though this is not a contemporary version – more of an edit. A line communicates what was previously a paragraph, a birthday is now a Name Day. Lett’s hasn’t changed meaning, cut characters or excised plot, and it’s a better play for it. This is Chekhov for people that find Chekhov dull and slow, and the script is the strongest element of this production.

Willmott sets this in the round; even though there is close proximity to the audience is still very much outside of the action. It is an act of cultural reflection as we look into this world that has striking similarities to ours but is decades in the past, but seeing the audience opposite chips away at this time-travelling effect. Though pros arch staging comes across as cold and distant, this production would benefit from those features.

The set and women’s costumes are vaguely period, though the men are in contemporary dress. This creates a jarring aesthetic that looks like a budget constraint rather than a deliberate choice. The script’s language still sounds of its time, and to see men in shapeless jumpers and modern combat trousers with women in demure, collared dresses looks lazy or cheap rather than a considered choice.

The cast are a balanced ensemble with distinct characters. The three sisters, whilst somewhat stereotyped at various points, demonstrate clear differences in their world views. Molly Crookes as Irina has a lovely journey from wide-eyed young adult to a broken fiance, as does Francesca Burgoyne’s Natasha. She begins as a nervous, stuttering creature and gradually morphs into a tyrant. As a whole, they convey the lost of hope and direction in an unforgiving changeable world, and whilst they become bitter, there is kinship with those in the audience who also have to settle for a mundane life of mediocrity, with dreams and goals flitting further and further away, as life is Moscow does for these young women.

This is a production that will particularly resonate with the much-maligned millennial generation who grew up being told that the world will be at your feet if only you work hard. Others may find it self-indulgent and moaning. It is – but these people are victim of circumstance as much as they are of their own choices. In any case, the performances are good, and the text is particularly so. It’s certainly worth seeing.

Three Sisters runs through 4 February.

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