Three Sisters, Royal Exchange, Manchester

The relentless power of three
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The Independent Culture

If anything could contradict Chekhov's own words – that his Three Sisters is "dreary, long and awkward" with "four heroines and a spirit more gloomy than doom itself" – it would surely be Sarah Frankcom's intelligent and poetic production, which opens the new season at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

In Michael Frayn's eloquent translation, in which the real drama is somehow encapsulated between the lines, the audience – as well as the actors – become part of the play, drawn in to the occurrences within, and conflicts between, the characters and their dreams.

The three Prozorov sisters, Irina, Masha and Olga, convey the frustrated yearning for life, and a better one at that, in Moscow, which is the beating heart of the play. Emma Cunniffe's Masha, less ill-tempered than in many portrayals, shows a vulnerable streak long before the unbearable parting from her Lieutenant-Colonel lover, Vershinin. Masha is by far the most interesting character in the play, and Cunniffe conveys, with the tiniest of gestures, the fact that – crushed, by the loss of the man she can't have and trapped in a stultifying marriage with the unloved yet adoring Kulygin – her claustrophobic future offers the least fragment of hope or cheer. Hers is the life most wasted.

Irina is expressively played by Beth Cooke, whose aunt, Niamh Cusack, took the role when the play was last given at this address in 1985. Cooke, whose "name-day" is being celebrated at the beginning, grows up before our eyes. From fresh-faced girl praising the virtue of work to weary worker herself, from would-be compliant wife to selfless dedicator of her life "to whoever needs it", she is a constantly appealing presence. She radiates first childlike naivety and, later, a chilling acceptance that fate has dealt a hand which she must bravely accept.

Lucy Black's Olga, full of regret that bubbles over in her admission that she would have married any man who asked her, "even an old man", gives a sensitive study in being unable, through tiredness or unhappy acceptance, to stop the waves of change and disruption engulfing their lives.

As Andrey, their brother whose marriage and gambling puts paid to the sisters' dreams of returning from this provincial backwater to their home-city of Moscow, Joseph Kloska is rapidly reduced from bright-eyed young man to careworn, disillusioned father whose misfortunes are more than financial. Polly Findlay, the sister-in-law from hell, plays Natasha pretty straight, surreptitiously usurping the sisters' position in their own house.

Mark Bonnar makes an attractive, Scottish Vershinin, enjoying philosophising amid the conviviality of a household that appears to be in marked contrast to his own pitiful domestic set-up. Christopher Colquhoun grows into the role of the Baron, while Roger Morlidge's Kulygin, the cuckolded husband of Masha, may pontificate pompously but is not unkind; in addition, among the other roles Michael Elwyn plays Chebutykin with relish.

Liz Ascroft's evocative set, with opaque pillars and billowing net curtains, emphasises the empty hollowness of this existence, and Frankcom's unwillingness to rush the dialogue or force anyone's hand allows the pervading sense of loss to seep out of the central acting space into the audience. She enables each character to inhabit his or her full human dimensions, from Anfisa the old nanny and Ferapont the deaf old servant, to the soldiers billeted near to where the sisters live, exiled from the bright lights they endlessly imagine waiting to welcome them back to Moscow. Frankcom, recently appointed an artistic director at the Royal Exchange, illuminates many aspects of the play, revealing the hopeless optimism of not just the three sisters but of practically all the characters. It's a powerful and compassionate production, never less than gripping, beautifully paced by the actors and presented with striking clarity.

To 11 October (0161-833 9833)