Since when did Chekhov's characters prefer an electric kettle to a samovar, wear trainers in conjunction with vintage military tailcoats, and speak intermittently into microphones? Well, conservative theatre-goers may blench, but it's no bad thing to see some alternative takes on the Russian's best plays as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Many of the more surprising aspects of this Lyric Hammersmith production of Three Sisters – using Christopher Hampton's trad English version, but staged by Sean Holmes with the experimental troupe Filter – are refreshing and amusing. That's particularly true of the sound design.
At Irina's name-day party, the two mercilessly teased sweethearts – the sisters' bookish brother, Andrei (Ferdy Roberts), and the petite-bourgeoise Natasha (Gemma Saunders) – bolt from the dining room. But Roberts doesn't deliver his breathless proposal of marriage to her downstage, seemingly out of the others' earshot. Instead, the couple are amplified from the wings, as if in some embarrassingly resounding hallway. And this grows painfully funny as the entire table of diners slowly turns to listen, with an invasiveness later reversed when Natasha domestically muscles in and elbows her sisters-in-law out of the family home, room by room.
It's also startlingly erotic when John Lightbody's feverishly charismatic Colonel Vershinin launches into his affair with Romola Garai's unhappy Masha, pinning her against the theatre's far wall, way upstage but next to a microphone stand, so his passionate whispering is surreally magnified.
Elsewhere, everyone sits around on a gloomy, desperately boring winter's night and the conversation dies for several minutes. Only the wind howls and rattles in the chimney like an omen of trouble brewing, until it seems we're expressionistically hearing everybody's simmering mental breakdowns or imminent revolutionary upheavals.
While Vershinin and others muse on how everything will be wonderfully different in the future, this production wryly acknowledges that people – oscillating between surging hope and disappointment – don't change that much. The melange of period and modern dress suggests their timelessness.
The set is, meanwhile, an enjoyable jumble: several battered pianos, an antique settee, lamps with bare bulbs, and the tech crew's sound desk on stage. It is shabby and bleak, surrounded by black space, yet somehow homely, too. It also looks much like a rehearsal room, an ironic allusion to the notion Vershinin likes to entertain: namely, that each of us can start our life afresh, the one we've led till now being merely a rough draft.
Unfortunately though, Holmes's production – rather too like a Chekhovian life – becomes sorely disappointing. In spite of some fine performances, including Poppy Miller's pent-up Olga, the acting is uneven and many of the cast go off the boil. Holmes doesn't quite follow through his microphones concept either. So by the end they seem merely a gimmick.
If Filter fall short of their promise, poor Barney gains only a Pyrrhic victory when he determines to make his life less colourful in The Whisky Taster, directed by James Grieve. The quiet, nice guy in James Graham's new office drama, set in a London ad agency, suffers from overwhelming synaesthesia.
It's a bit like being King Midas, only more exhaustingly varied. Everything Barney touches or tastes, smells, sees or hears is instantly overlaid with something else, because he is neurologically bombarded with additional sensory perceptions. If he hears the word "Monday", he tastes parma violets. When he sips a vodka – which he's trying to rebrand – he sees blue, silver and gold.
His wide-boy boss, Simon Merrells' mannered Malcolm, regards this as a gift to marketing, but Barney finds his condition painful and wants to suppress it, along with his unspoken love for his team-mate, Nicola. Samuel Barnett's quietly tender performance is lovely, but Lucy Osborne's stage design – lurid with flashing neon – is clumsy. One wonders why Barney is blind to the fact that Nicola, as played by Kate O'Flynn, is a charmless ladette? And then we have to suffer the arrival of the pseudo guru, John Stahl's slow-paced whisky taster who spouts enough sententious platitudes to drive anyone to drink. The playwright isn't without humour or an ear for dialogue, but his ideas need more time to mature.
Finally, there is a bewitching simplicity to the multi-layered storytelling in I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother, by writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi. Presented by the Palestinian troupe ShiberHur at the Young Vic, and played out under a tarpaulin strung above pools of water, it tells the story of close-knit Palestinian villagers and their petty squabbles and romances. These are then engulfed by full-blown warfare as the British Mandate ends in 1948. Some of them just don't see it coming.
What's enchanting is the humour, warmth and passion of Zuabi's folk tale of two brothers, one an innocent simpleton. Though not all the actors cope with the bilingual Arabic-English script, there are haunting poetic images. People's older selves hover like pale ghosts and an old man – determined not to leave his fruit tree for his enemy – carries it, flowering, on his back.
'Three Sisters' (0871 221 1722) to 20 Feb; 'The Whisky Taster' (020-8743 5050) to 20 Feb; 'I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother' (020-7922 2922) to 19 Jan
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