Theatre THREE SISTERS Bristol Old Vic

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The Independent Culture
The lunch party in the first act of Chekhov's Three Sisters is famously, if briefly, subdued by Fedotik's spinning top which, as it slows and wobbles, seems to foist on the company an accidental and awkward reminder of the way each life is doomed to wind down.

That little symbol surfaces a second time at the end of Max Stafford- Clark's finely considered new staging of the piece for Out of Joint. Indeed, as the military brigade depart and Olga embraces her sisters, this production reassembles everybody - including the slain Tuzenbakh and the absconded Vershinin - on stage. As they stand there confronting you, you suddenly realise that you are the posterity that so preoccupies them, the forgetful future in which, Olga declares, she and her like can earn an anonymous stake only by work and suffering.

Her words are qualified here, however, by the stage picture, which brings home to you how Chekhov's art gives these people and their way of life the means of a more personal survival, and the image thus offers a moving counterbalance to the bleak determinism symbolised by the top, and the nihilism voiced by the irresponsible Chebutykin (Bernard Gallagher) who has, almost, the last word.

Not that the production trades in the falsely optimistic. Rarely have I felt, watching this play, such a keen sense that relations polarise between myopic, pedantic or pathological devotion, hung like a millstone round the wrong neck. Despite his dogmatic declarations of happiness, various touches alert you, for example, to the fact that Brian Protheroe's uxorious bore of a Kulygin really wishes he'd married either of his sisters- in-law. After the arduous exertions caused by the third act fire, that's just about the last thing Anita Dobson's pinched, spinsterly Olga needs to have hinted at her, and she lets her arm flop down from embracing him with a comically weary incredulity.

Before she goes off for the ride with Protopopov that launches their affair, Jenna Russell's initially far-from-unsympathetic Natasha directs a long, pointed stare at the door of her husband's study, that hive of maudlin non-industry which is his selfish sanctuary from a woman his snobbish sisters have made him ashamed to love. The production sticks up for Natasha where it can, and you deduce that she's a reactive rather than a born monster. But it's a nice touch that, here, as she goes off for her fateful ride, this doting mother and neglected wife is seen exercising a new ability to blank out the all-too-audible crying of her beloved infant.

Though the performance rhythm still feels a bit tentative in place, it's a strong cast, with Nigel Terry bringing out well the painful hollowness of Vershinin and Lloyd Hutchinson giving a hangdog Ulster edge to that nasty little nihilist Solyony. At present, Anita Dobson seems excessively wan as Olga and there could be more of a sense of easy and unconscious physical intimacy between her and Catherine Russell's volatile handful of Masha and Kate Ashfield's wonderfully unsentimentalised, tantrum-throwing Irina. Still, after the Redgraves and the Cusacks, it makes a change to see three sisters who aren't sisters.

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