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Three Sisters at Manchester's Royal Exchange

You can't go far wrong with this version of Chekhov’s masterpiece

Published on September 19th 2008.

Three Sisters at Manchester's Royal Exchange

THREE sisters, Irina (Beth Cooke), Masha (Emma Cunniffe) and Olga (Lucy Black) are gathered to celebrate Irina’s naming day. Happier times are behind them; their father died a year ago this day and, with only the soldiers stationed in this tedious unnamed town to keep them entertained, they dream of finding a sense of meaning for their lives.

Irina, the youngest, believes that work will give their lives purpose. Olga, the eldest, hopes fate might deliver her something other than the trajectory of a schoolteacher. Masha, set apart from the two at first in her silence by the piano, is set apart from them in life, too. She is the only one who is married, to a schoolteacher she once thought intelligent and now merely endures, and she too is looking for more.

Chekhov wrote this play whilst in the rural area of Yalta, having left Moscow for health reasons. The boredom and frustration of the playwright, evident in his letters of the time, is channelled into his characters’ dreams of escaping their lives and going to their childhood home of Moscow, where happiness, they are sure, will be found. Around this dream, the play weaves its explorations of love, happiness and meaning.

Three Sisters is a play of conversations as much as action. The sisters and the soldiers are urgent and ardent; they're gripped by the need to make passionate speeches and predict the fate of the world and their own lives in words which are poignant, funny and searching. They constantly “philosophize”: troubled solider Vershinin (Mark Bonnar) makes speeches to convince that, while life is unbearable, future generations will know joy. “Life on earth will be astonishingly beautiful,” he says. “Eventually a new happy life will dawn.”

Affable Leuitenant Baron Tusenbach (Christopher Colquhoun) responds that future generations will say, as they always have, that life was better before. This is our nature. The older doctor, Chebutykin (Michael Elwin) insists, “It doesn’t matter.”

As the sisters grapple with their own ways of living, their brother, Andre (Joseph Kloska), is shaped and duped by life; his expectations of playing the violin and becoming a scholar are slowly eroded once he proposes to the tedious Natasha (Polly Findlay).

The sisters’ relationship is fascinating and convincing and Cooke, Cunliffe and Black are excellent in conveying the passionate sisters, each different in temperament but bonded by a similar wish for something which – like the ever-postponed trip to Moscow – seems always out of reach.

Joseph Kloska is also compelling as Andre, the man of the family. He evolves throughout the play to become something simultaneously sympathetic and hateful and pitiable. Findlay is brilliant as his odious wife, a tedious, doting mother, happy only because her expectations are so prosaic.

This is an amazing play, both sweeping and intricate, passionate and pensive – and this production manages to draw out all the subtlety of the piece whilst losing none of the magnitude. Every detail serves a purpose; the naturalistic language is mined for every humorous nuance or shade of meaning; the music between sets and the singing and playing within acts adds an extra level to the production. Each of the characters, even the smaller roles, are fascinating and fully explored.

As we watch these people, we are drawn in completely to their search for meaning, into their decisions to love or be loved, to fight fate or accept it. Passionate, disillusioned, disappointed but finding a reason to carry on, the characters in Three Sisters offer numerous ideas about meaning. The play gives weight to all, or none, of them, resulting in a powerful, comedic and uplifting piece of work.

This is a brilliant play, brilliantly realised. “We have fallen in love with this great play; and all the characters that live within in,” says director Sarah Frankcom in the Three Sisters programme. And you know why – it would be impossible not to love this wonderful exploration of life in all its mystery.

“We know much more than we need to,” says Masha, expressing the sisters’ frustrations with living in this uninspiring town; a line which also serves as a comment on what it means to be human.

Nicola Mostyn

Three Sisters runs until 11 October, Royal Exchange theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester

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Professor ChucklebuttySeptember 19th 2008.

I was very disappointed in this production. The House of Elliot was required viewing for me and Mrs C and this stage version was not a patch on the TV one. Where was Tilly? Jack never mentioned going into motion pictures and nobody got cross about the lack of bugle beading! Apart from me.

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