Three Sisters, Noël Coward Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Galina Volchek's striking account of Three Sisters – the second production in the short nine-day residency in London by Moscow's renowned Sovremennik Theatre – begins with a determined departure from tradition. The titular trio are discovered standing at the crest of a large curved wooden bridge, their white scarves buffeted by an icy wind, in a tableau that offers an eerie premonition of that icon of stoic endurance which these siblings constitute at the end of Chekhov's masterpiece. Then the atmosphere suddenly switches to febrile gaiety. The circular revolve goes into overdrive; lights flicker as though in an electrical storm; and the Prozorov's drawing room whirls round with a wild abandon in preparation for the tensions of Irina's name day and the hectic lassitude (so to speak) of the play.

Volchek's production transmits a keen sense of the "dynamic apathy" (to quote Kenneth Tynan) which is the default mood of Chekhov's world. But it pays a heavy price for the scenic dominance that it gives to that bridge, which remains onstage as a distracting presence throughout. Indeed, this version might well be subtitled "A Bridge Too Far". To justify the obtrusiveness of the structure, the production is forced to send people rushing out onto it – Viktoria Romanenko's giddy, lyrical Irina is at one point rescued from a suicidal leap by her sisters; Chulpan Khamatova's mercurial Masha desperately tries to obstruct the departure of her lover, Vershinin. But at such moments, the production risks lapsing into precisely the kind of melodrama to which Chekhov's writing is the sublime antidote.

The director regards it as crucial that even the best of the characters in Three Sisters "understand the world only as a reflection of their own ego". You see this in some fine performances – the subtly self-involved Vershinin of Vladislav Vetrov and, best of all, Igor Kvasha as the drunken nihilistic doctor, Chebutykin, who here, in a lovely touch that sums up the bipolar volatility of Chekhov's personnel, first dries his face on his beloved, barricading newspaper then sets fire to it with a playful contempt. But while the production is alive to the tragicomedy of non-communication, the conflicting moods are, in general, presented one at a time, rather than as the clashing sounds of a chamber orchestra of incurable soloists.