Production: Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Running: 10 to 20 March
As Chekhov’s Three Sisters begins, the audience finds themselves present at the anniversary of someone’s death. But it is also the same day on which the name of another character is celebrated, in a tradition similar to the festivities of a birthday or the day of a patron saint. It’s a suitable introduction to the tone of Chekhov’s drama, which isn’t so much tragicomic as it is an invitation to attend, at the same time, a drunken birthday party and an intensely sad funeral.
Last week’s amateur performance of Three Sisters by the York Settlement Community Players at times achieved this juxtaposition. There were affectively painful moments where one character’s suicidal miseries were interrupted by another’s oblivious small-talk and bad jokes. An enjoyable turn by Christina Nobbs as Natasha offered the audience a character whose pettiness and unfeeling nature were simultaneously amusing and despicable. As a whole, however, the piece lacked spark and fluidity – though it didn’t feel over-long.
The Three Sisters are Olga, Irina and Masha, who live in late nineteenth-century provincial Russia. The entire play takes place in the family house and its garden, over the course of five years which bear witness to the decline of the gentry. The parentless sisters and their brother Andrey must settle into unhappy jobs and marriages, always longing for a better life in the beloved city of Moscow, spending their time with soldiers, servants and suitors in a life where meaning is vanishing but hope can never quite be relinquished.
As the eldest sister Olga tries to preserve a matriarchal hold on the family, the stories of Irina and Masha tend to take dramatic precedence in the play, and it was the plotline concerning the latter which felt the strongest and most convincing. This was largely thanks to great performances from Gemma Sharp as Masha, from real-life assistant headteacher Andy Crisp as her hapless school-teaching husband Kulygin, and from Maurice Crichton as her eventual lover Vershinin. The loveless marriage was comically dismal and the affair seemed audaciously romantic, tangled up even more by Olga’s longing for a husband .
The sense of this web of lovers and relatives unfortunately fell short of reaching the play’s other characters, and their emotional crises felt subsequently weakened. The dynamic between, Irina and Tusenbach, for example, didn’t feel appropriate for the sadness and tragic ironies it catalyses. Director Helen Wilson has noted in the programme the difficulty of staging the play in the Theatre Royal’s intimate studio, but should be proud of the almost claustrophobic atmosphere which pervaded certain scenes. The staging meant that members of the audience found themselves face to face with some characters during moments of heightened emotion, becoming flies on the bedroom walls in Act 3. Strengths like this, however, didn’t feel like organic parts of the whole piece, but were instead fleetingly powerful moments in a disjointed play.