Three Sisters - under the skin

A radical version of Chekhov's classic of family ennui premieres tonight. Alice Jones meets the actresses following in famous footsteps

Traditionalists should look away now. Or at least have the smelling salts to hand. Tonight a radical new version of Three Sisters opens at the Young Vic in London, with three rapidly rising stars – Mariah Gale, Vanessa Kirby and Gala Gordon – in the lead roles. The director is Benedict Andrews, celebrated wild child of the Sydney theatre scene, now making a name for himself over here with his ultra-modern, iconoclastic productions. In the last year he has put Cate Blanchett in a tutu and had her pirouette across the Barbican's stage in Gross und Klein, retooled Caligula as a gold-Kalashnikov-toting cross between Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi at the ENO, and given Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses the Tarantino treatment at the Young Vic.

The last time he tackled Chekhov – The Seagull at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney last summer – he set the action in a shack on Bondi Beach and had the characters call each other “mate”. So it's safe to assume that his Three Sisters will not be a museum piece. A trailer online which shows the three sisters dressed to kill in designer ball-gowns, sloshing vodka into each other's mouths, pawing at cake, and whirling around like blissed-out ravers, suggests a more sophisticated name-day party for Irina than the traditional samovar and spinning top. And then there's Andrews's script, which has Masha bemoaning her “mindless fucking boredom,” replaces lines from Pushkin's “Ruslan and Ludmila” with Bowie's “Golden Years” and peppers speeches with references to the telly and Leonard Cohen lyrics.

“I expect it will be met by a certain degree of consternation. Or even anger,” says Gale, who plays the oldest sister, Olga. “But why not take a risk? Why not do a Marmite production that you might love or hate?” chips in Gordon, aka little sister Irina. “Yes. Why do you want to watch people going round in corsets, [then] leave at the end of the evening thinking: 'What a story. They were sad, weren't they?'” asks Vanessa Kirby, middle sister Masha. So they won't be wearing corsets? “No!”

Aside from Andrews's bold staging, this feisty threesome is the main reason to get excited by the latest Chekhov revival. It's not a casting coup along the lines of the Cusack siblings or the Redgrave relatives (see box), but it's an exciting prospect nonetheless. Gale, 33, is an accomplished Shakespearean actress best known for playing a superlative Ophelia to David Tennant's Hamlet in 2008, and, more recently, a Converse-wearing Juliet at the RSC (her Romeo, Sam Troughton, also appears in Three Sisters, as Tuzenbach). Kirby, 24, was last seen on stage in The Acid Test at the Royal Court but is known to most from her television roles, including a brief but memorable debut as the murdered debutante in The Hour and as Estella in the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, opposite Douglas Booth (who subsequently became her boyfriend). Gordon, 21, is the baby of the family, fresh out of drama school. She finished at Guildhall in July and started rehearsals on this, her professional debut, three weeks later.

Today, tumbling out of the rehearsal room on their lunch break, all barefoot, with long hair messily piled up, they don't look particularly alike but you can see exactly why Andrews cast them. Gordon, half South American, is the dark-eyed, sincere one, Kirby the blonde, feline one, prone to wild outbursts, Gale the regally still one – pale, thoughtful and softly spoken. “Benedict said he looked for the essence of the character in whoever walked through the door,” she says. “And I think he got it really well.”

“Gemma Arterton came out of the room before my audition and I thought, 'there is no way in hell I'm getting this role,'” gossips Kirby, through a mouthful of sushi. “I honestly thought I did a terrible audition.” And yet here they are, finishing each other's sentences and calling each other affectionate nicknames (Minnie, Nu and Geegee, in case you were wondering). Has it been easy to bond as sisters? “Just from rehearsals and going through the struggles that you experience every day in the room, you build this incredible relationship. I feel very protective of them. We're a lot closer than friends,” says Gordon.

“True sisterhood is so habitual, so engrained,” says Gale. “It's not so acted, it's already established. We've been trying to learn how to act as one. It's like a piece of music. We all have to learn how to play it together, to be completely in tune with each other while appearing not to be.”

All three are making their Chekhov debuts but this is not their first encounter with the playwright. It was seeing Vanessa and Corin Redgrave in The Cherry Orchard at the National in 2000 that inspired Kirby to become an actress. “My parents would always take me to the theatre and I was bored a lot of the time. Loads of Shakespeare, and I didn't know what the hell was going on. And then, when I was 13, we went to see The Cherry Orchard and it changed everything for me. I saw this brother and sister being so real. I was so moved by it and I didn't know why.”

Gordon played Nina in The Seagull at drama school, a role that resonated painfully after her cousin committed suicide in her first year. “What Chekhov was writing, I was experiencing. I realised that a playwright can unlock things within you and I fell in love with Chekhov. Irina is such an incredible part, too – she's so young but she wants so much. I see a lot of that in myself.”

While Andrews has wrestled the play out of its turn-of-the-century setting, the Prozorov family will still be mired in the Russian provinces, yearning to return to the light and life of Moscow. It will be a timeless, “metaphorical” Russia, though, to allow the themes of isolation, aimlessness and psychological decay to come to the forefront. “Wherever you are in the world, whoever you are with, sometimes you feel desperately lonely,” says Kirby. “These girls have each other, it's not solitary confinement. But their minds have been left to fester.”

There have been other audacious rewrites. A 1980 New York production replaced the three sisters with three men. The Wooster Group cast grey-haired actresses and put them in wheelchairs. Last year Blake Morrison drew out the links with the Brontës – three refined women stuck in the wilderness with a terminally disappointing brother – in his new play, We Are Three Sisters. Unlike Shakespeare, though, which has been set in every imaginable place and time, the default setting for Chekhov in the UK remains corsets, samovars and parasols. “And yet his characters have the same concerns, the same disappointments, the same passions we have,” says Gale.

Chekhov began writing Three Sisters in 1899, a year after his father died. The plays opens a year after the death of the girls' father, a cataclysm which leaves the family rudderless and purposeless. On finishing the first draft Chekhov admitted that he'd written a piece “with four heroines and a spirit more gloomy than gloom itself”. And while some critics agreed – one in the New Times labelled Chekhov “the minstrel of hopelessness” – when it opened at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1901, it became an instant favourite with audiences.

Chekhov did not attend the premiere. Since 1898 he had been exiled in Yalta due to poor health, separated from his great love, the celebrated Moscow actress Olga Knipper, whom he married in 1901. The three sisters' heartfelt longing for the capital was felt just as keenly by their creator. Masha, the play's most interesting character – a bleak, often comically outspoken soul who embarks on an ill-fated affair with the visiting Colonel Vershinin – was written for Knipper. “Oh what a role there is for you in Three Sisters!” Chekhov told her in a letter. “What a role! If you give me 10 roubles, you can have it, otherwise I will give it to another actress.”

“His understanding of the characters comes from Olga,” says Kirby. “She tells him everything in her daily letters. Every day he gets these bursts of feelings. A lot of that is channelled into these women.”

“It's like the play is a love letter to Olga,” says Gale. “It's not just Masha. Her energy and vitality is in Irina, her wit, steadiness and supportiveness in Olga. Sometimes it feels like one woman in three different stages of the sun rising and setting.”

For young actresses, the play offers some of the most complex and intriguing roles in the canon – a rare female-centric ensemble in which Olga, Masha and Irina grapple with bereavement, lovelessness, infidelity, death and disappointment, not to mention Chekhov's exhilarating changes of tone from comedy to tragedy and back again.

“Olga's story is so rarely told. He's written the girl who doesn't get the guys, who feels old before her time, who feels that she has to be responsible. I go home and I think, 'this is the story of so many women I know',” says Gale. “It's so refreshing to play women who have many sides and contradictions. I wish there were more of them.” So Chekhov offers more interesting meditations on womanhood than contemporary playwriting?

“It could offer more. It has riches but there could be more multi-dimensional roles for women,” says Gale. “It is hard,” agrees Kirby. “So many times you pick up a script and you think, 'OK, so she's the sexy one,' or, 'she's the ex-girlfriend…' When I was auditioning for drama school and looking for a monologue, it was all, 'I'm whinging about my period, or my baby that has died, or my boyfriend…' Why can't you have a normal girl, talking about ideas? There's hope. Dennis Kelly is writing awesome parts, Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss too. But it's rare to find such a layered family of women.”

So where does one look for the next rich female part? “I want to play Hedda,” says Kirby. “Even if I have do it in the Scottish Hebrides, on my own, with only a gardener watching.” It seems unlikely, given that Hollywood has already come calling. She has just finished filming Richard Curtis's About Time and Ridley Scott's adaptation of Kate Mosse's bestseller Labyrinth.

“I'd like to play Ophelia. And Nina again. And Laurencia in Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega,” says Gordon. “And I want someone to write a play about the Pussy Rioters. I'd like to do that.” From the Prozorov sisters to Pussy Riot – it's not such a leap, especially with Andrews at the helm. Are they worried about the reaction to his version? “We like it! Who cares?” says Gordon. “There's a confidence that comes from the fact that there are three of us. If you fall flat on your face, there is a safety net. Someone will pick you up.” That's what sisters are for, after all.

'Three Sisters', Young Vic, London (020 7922 2922; to 13 Oct

Threes of their kind: The best trios

The Old Guard

Queen's Theatre, 1938

John Gielgud assembled an all-star cast for his season at the Queen's Theatre. Peggy Ashcroft, Carol Goodner and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies played Irina, Masha and Olga, with Alec Guinness as Fedotik, Michael Redgrave as Tuzenbach and Gielgud as Vershinin. “A restatement of an exquisite play made not only with exquisite sensibility but also with technical power,” said 'The Observer'.

The Rockstar One

Royal Court Theatre, London, 1967

Marianne Faithfull made her professional stage debut playing Irina opposite Glenda Jackson and Avril Elgar. Mick Jagger came to the first night, having apparently helped Faithfull to prepare. “He was very good at playing three sisters to help me learn my lines,” she said.

The Cusacks

Gate Theatre, Dublin, 1990

Adrian Noble's production starred not only sisters Sinéad, Sorcha and Niamh Cusack but also their father, Cyril, as Chebutykin. At one point Jeremy Irons, aka Mr Sinéad Cusack, was also pegged to play Masha's lover, Vershinin, but the plan was rejected lest Cusack felt “suffocated” by the amount of family around her. The critics adored it. “As you might expect, the stage glows with family warmth and the gestures of long familiarity,” said 'The Independent on Sunday'.

The Redgraves

Queen's Theatre, London, 1991

The first and last time that sisters Lynn and Vanessa appeared together on stage. Youngest sister Irina was played by their 25-year old niece Jemma. “One of the hardest things is to convey the power of a family relationship and that for us is as easy as falling off a log,” said Lynn. Robert Sturua created a frenzied, hysterical mood which was condemned by one critic as “cultural barbarism”. Others cherish it as the definitive version. “The relationships of family life are instantly caught,” said 'The Guardian'.

The Young Pretenders

National Theatre, London, 2003

Notorious auteur Katie Mitchell made her name with this three-and-a-half hour version of the play, featuring slow-motion silent sequences, ballet, and plenty of sexual frisson between Eve Best's Masha and Ben Daniels's Vershinin. Lorraine Ashbourne and Anna Maxwell Martin played the other sisters in a superb cast. “I'm a closet iconoclast”, said Mitchell. “Part of me wants to realise 'Three Sisters' as precisely as Chekhov wrote it. Another part of me wants to communicate it today, which means smashing it to smithereens – just like that clock in the play, which gets smashed to buggery.”

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