Theatre: Sister act

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The Independent Culture
THREE SISTERS

WHITEHALL THEATRE LONDON

CHEKHOV'S THREE Sisters as a play for the Millennium? An eminently suitable choice, as is proved by Dominic Dromgoole's remarkably fresh and immediate revival for Oxford Stage Company at the Whitehall. The piece was, after all, written at the very start of the century, as Russia teetered on the brink of revolution, and it is filled with people who have a compulsive desire to evade the pressures of the present by imagining how life will be lived two or three hundred years hence. Now, at the end of the century, with post-communist Russia embroiled in a different kind of economic and political turmoil, there is a special poignancy in looking back at Chekhov's characters as they look forward.

Dromgoole's production, unevenly cast but emotionally very involving, does not labour this point, unlike a recent bizarre staging I caught in France, directed by a Romanian, which ended with Natasha, the pushy sister- in-law, in labour on a table. Dozens of prams rolled across the stage in what looked like a military march past. She was giving birth, we were to deduce, to the Soviet Army. Dromgoole's account applies hindsight more sensitively in being exceptionally alert to the comedy, pain and psychological hunger that lie behind such a tendency to project into the future. Two such searching and heart-snagging performances help bring this home.

Tom Smith's excellent Tuzenbakh turns the unloved Baron into a gruff, nervously convivial Scot. When, in act two, he decides to liven up the party by challenging the others to philosophise about life for the generations to come, he seizes centre stage with a touching competitive eagerness, as if it were a weight-lifting contest he had started rather than a speculation game. The absurdity heightens admiration for the character's intrinsic selflessness.

It also underlines the contrast between him and Jonny Phillips' charismatic, vulpinely voracious Vershinin, the love-sick major who makes rather more self-serving use of prognostication. When he raptly rehearses his vision of a distant utopia, Phillips' performance lets you see both that this is part of a calculated bid to impress Claudie Blakley's nicely off-hand Masha, and that it is also a genuine outpouring from the man, who, through marital misery, has become almost dogmatically insistent about the general impossibility of present happiness.

No one could accuse the production of being over-prettily designed. The awkward set for the first two acts resembles an unholy cross between a home in Taos, Mexico, and front-of-house at the Barbican. But, with a strong translation from Samuel Adamson, the show is rich in emotional insights. I particularly liked Paul Ritter, who plays the pedantic schoolmaster Kulygin like an oily, flustered conjuring act, and Bohdan Poraj, whose Solyony, the young nihilist, is all the more sinister for being so understated. The production renews one's sense that there has been no greater play written this century or, indeed, this millennium.

Booking (0171-369 1735) to 3 July

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper

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