Three Sisters, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London

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The Independent Culture

More than once during Katie Mitchell's production of Three Sisters one feels she has dealt with her concern about conveying the passage of years by playing the drama in real time. The evening lasts three-and-a-half hours, during which time actors take lengthy pauses between lines, move in slow motion, and even, for Christ's sake, freeze and listen to the clock. There are also a few sequences that make you feel you have been watching them since time began: I suppose it takes less than a minute, but every second of the travelling musicians' performance in the last act was agony: they are accompanied by a ballerina, all in white, who, while the rain falls, dances like a mechanical doll. I guess the murder of a decent, disappointed man and the ruin of two women's lives wasn't poignant enough.

Apart from the occasional cliché and spot of pretension, however, the direction beautifully serves the play's almost unbearable sense of frustration and despair, and the cast is superb. The scenes between Masha (Eve Best) and Ben Daniels's Vershinin throb with a real erotic charge - especially the one in which Vershinin declares himself, and the astonished Masha automatically tells him to stop and then, after a moment, to go on. When the company enters, they sit apart in the darkened room, and you can see them begin to create their own little world as he lights a pre-coital cigarette.

Tall and thin as a stork, constantly bending forward with ineffectual solicitude and puffing himself up with ineffectual displays of satisfaction, Angus Wright's Kulygin vividly lets us see why Masha cannot bear her pedantic husband. Yet we also feel his sharp consciousness of his failure, and pain at his inability to do anything but produce more desiccated puns. When he and Vershinin arrive for the cancelled party, they wear stag's horns and trip out together, the graceful, virile beast and the awkward horned man. (Nice as this effect is, it makes one wonder: the joke must be one of Kulygin's bright ideas, but would Vershinin be so cruel - and mean - as to go along with it?) As the jealous Solyony, the froggy-voiced Tim McMullan makes a part that is more usually a fifth wheel memorably vicious. Some may think that this gives the part a melodramatic tinge, but I welcomed the change from the introverted Solyonys I'm used to, whose violence (while the rest of his unit is pulling out of town) seems as implausible as his skill at duelling. Here, instead, is a proud man whose obsession with Irina (the lovely, pathetic Anna Maxwell Martin) will clearly come to a bad end. Dominic Rowan's Andrey rather overdoes the character's babyish sullenness - would his sisters have had great hopes of such a meatball? - but his babyish helplessness gains our sympathy, especially when two of the sisters show their contempt by silently undressing for bed in front of him.

I'm in two minds about Vicki Mortimer's immense, dirty-cream interior, which must have needed painting even when the family moved in 11 years before. Yes, the physical distance between the characters emphasises their loneliness and isolation; on the other hand, one could say that the Cinerama proportions sometimes make the play feel unfocused and overblown. Either way, it's well worth seeing to decide what you think.

Booking to 4 October (020-7452 3000)

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