First Night: A Chekhov masterpiece fit for the millennium

Three Sisters Whitehall Theatre London
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The Independent Online
THREE SISTERS as a play for the millennium? Eminently so, as is proved by Dominic Dromgoole's exceptionally fresh and immediate production for Oxford Stage Company at the Whitehall.

The play was written at the start of the century and is full of characters who have a compulsive need to try to escape from the pressures of the present by imagining how life will be lived two or three hundred years hence. Now, we look back on Chekhov's characters looking forward with a special poignancy.

There's a splendid moment when Tom Smith's marvellously funny Tuzenbakh - gruff, pint-sized, gabbylingly nervous and Scots-accented - decides to get the party going by challenging the others to talk about how life will be lived in the future. He takes to the centre of the stage with the naive enthusiasm of someone entering a weightlifting contest, and the absurdity throws into relief the sadness of this need.

The production understands the play's superb objective impartiality, that it is the aggregate of everyone's point of view. So when Major Vershinin, played with desperate sexual hunger by Jonny Phillips, responds to Tuzenbakh's challenge with a wishful vision of a distant Utopian society, the perspective on him is a double one: we see this speil is part of a calculated bid to impress Claudie Blekley's offhand, husky, Masha and the genuine outpouring of a man who has converted his marital misery into an almost dogmatic disbelief in happiness in the present.

No one could accuse this production of being beautifully designed or full of atmospheric texture. The set for the first two acts resembles a cross between a home in Taos, Mexico and front of house at the Barbican. But it, and Samuel Adamson's compelling translation, are full of telling touches. The production renews ones conviction that there has been no better play written this century or indeed this millennium.