Three Sisters

QPAC Playhouse (Brisbane Festival/Chekhov International Theatre Festival)


In a Brisbane Festival full of innovation and surprises, the staging of Chekhov’s masterpiece in its original Russian proved to be a unique and valuable experience. (Fortunately sub-titles are provided to enable local audiences to fully appreciate the text the titles are screened on monitors to each side of the stage, avoiding the upward gazing of opera audiences seeking meaning from surtitles.)

The joy of the production from Brisbane’s perspective is to see a top Russian ensemble acting a brilliant play in the language of its author, bringing something of the Russian soul to the other side of the earth. The language sounds deliciously rich and meaningful (irreverently recalling the Jamie Lee Curtis character Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda, so aroused by John Cleese’s fluency in russkiy yazyk). But regardless of the language concerned, it is indeed a fascinating experience to experience a foreign-language play in its original voice, and I hope we will have more such opportunities in Brisbane.

Directed by Declan Donnellan for the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, the production is powerful and convincing. Donnellan has eschewed Chekhov’s rather static settings to give us a production with much more action and movement. The luncheon table of Act I is centre stage rather than upstage behind pillars, and characters dance and run around it. Intimate exchanges are spotlighted while other characters are in shadows.

There’s the usual quirky collection of characters who people Chekhov plays, with wistful and wandering philosophising. They speculate about the distant future, wondering whether people would fundamentally be any different 200 years hence in our century. (Answer: no.)

Irina Grineva shines as Masha, lovelessly married and increasingly drawn to the melancholy middle-aged colonel Vershinin (Alexander Feklistov). Evgenia Dmitrieva as Olga, the anchor of the family, and Nelli Uvarova as youngest sister Irina yearning for Moskvábeautifully depict characters who are at once different and similar.

Igor Yasulovich as the old army doctor, Chebutikin, is superb, engaging us with his laconic utterances and observations. As the young aristocratic officer Tuzenbach, Artem Semakin projects optimism and naiveté. The romance between Vershinin and Masha is touchingly and organically depicted, through to its highly-charged and physical farewell scene.

Also effective are Alexey Dadonov as the sisters’ cuckolded brother, Andrey, and Ekaterina Sibiryakova as as wife Natasha, who eerily morphs into the sister-in-law from hell. Alexander Lenkov and Galina Moracheva give touchingly real characterisations of the deaf council watchman and the elderly nurse.

Nick Ormerod’s design evokes the 19th century provincial mansion of the sisters as they yearn for a more fulfilling life in the big city. No doubt many contemporary Muscovites would happily exchange their lot for life in the provinces, but the grass on the other hills is always greener, as Chekhov knew so well.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to discover that the common naming of this play as “The Three Sisters” is contrary to the Russian title, Tri sestri, which lacks the definite article. This production corrects the error. Concordant with his capturing of universal themes, Chekhov was writing about any three sisters, whose story is repeated over and over in culture after culture and until the end of time.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Tue 29th July 2008)