Three Sisters, King's Theatre, Edinburgh <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

The siblings miss a beat
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The Independent Culture

Misleadingly, the publicity for this production in the International Festival promises Chekhov's Three Sisters. It might have been better to come clean and admit that the American Repertory Theatre from Massachusetts is actually presenting Three Sisters based on a play by Chekhov but adapted by the Polish director/designer Krystian Lupa, based on a translation by Paul Schmidt. That way, the audience's expectations wouldn't have been quite so cruelly dashed as they witnessed Chekhov's penetrating exploration of human life and aspirations becoming ever more distorted and convoluted.

Anyone who saw the same director's 11-hour production of Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers in Edinburgh seven years ago wouldn't be surprised by the slow pace, the monumental silences, and the surreal quality Lupa applies to this theatrical canvas. He has a reputation for applying layers of psychological complexity and introducing unexpected stylistic innovations. But while the rhythm of language punctuated by silences can be captivating - hypnotic, even - it wasn't given that chance here, thanks to the director's own incessant and distracting percussive involvement.

Sitting in one of the circle boxes, he rapped out an intrusive and irritating rhythmic message, underscoring the text with a pattern of drum beats. The words themselves, not always clearly audible, and unfamiliar in their updated context, betrayal of content, and jarring Americanisms, had already prompted one member of the audience to shout, "We can't hear!" So strange is the fractured opening of the production, and so improvisational in style is the whole show, that, for a moment, one wasn't sure whether or not this was actually part of it.

Time doesn't so much stand still in Lupa's take on the Prozorov girls as grind inexorably backwards, all of it chronicled on photographic equipment of the appropriate period. Olga, Masha and Irina appear dressed at first in contemporary garb (the despised sister-in-law Natasha in fluffy slippers), then in 1950s costumes, before finally, in Act Four, the clothes are of Chekhov's own period. The action takes place behind a thin frame, which, bordering the stage, glows red to indicate a scene change. It's one of several filmic devices (another is the walking corpse of the Baron) introduced into the director's not unimaginative staging.

There are some vestiges of Chehkov left in Lupa's often incomprehensible vision of the trio of girls and their brother - Olga, the teacher, desperate to be married, Masha, the unhappy wife of Kulygin, the tedious schoolmaster, and Irina, the idealistic dreamer. They - along with their gifted brother, Andrey, who is sexually acquisitive and stultified in his intellectual ambitions, and soldiers from the local garrison who are masquerading as poets and philosophers - are all characterfully portrayed by the company. Ghosts of the past flit by, the walls of the house seem to talk, and pipes gurgle, while the music reflects the family's claustrophobic existence and longing for something to happen.

Beyond the drawing room, where the birthday party for Irina continues, the guests' voices are amplified to echo evocatively across the glass partition. The meal of roast turkey and apple pie, and the request to be shown "the bathroom", reminds us that this is an American slant on a provincial town in Russia. For Moscow should we be reading Manhattan?

Lupa's ambition to reveal Chekhov as "a wild, surrealistic writer" and to "uncover the craziness of the characters, hidden by the static nature of their lives" has seriously misfired, however. Such are the bizarre tangents the characters seem to go off on that when one declares, "I'm so confused - they talk bullshit", those in the audience who had returned after the interval laughed aloud. Was Lupa intending to send up Chekhov? It certainly appeared so at times.

King's Theatre until 2 September 0131-473 2000 7pm (also 1pm 31 Aug and 2 Sep)

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