Chekhov gets a bad rep for creating a bleak and depressing image of Mother Russia and its people.
His plays are frequently so full of angst and darkness that you come out filled with suicidal thoughts.
But there’s a lot of lightness to be had in Russell Bolam’s production of Three Sisters which has just opened at the Southwark Playhouse, London.
It’s a dialogue-heavy drama that, in its traditional form, told the story of three women and their relationships with a string of men, while trapped in an isolated garrison town in the back of beyond.
I’m not entirely sure that this modern interpretation by Anya Reiss cuts the mustard.
Nothing wrong with the passionate and compelling performances by the central characters but the geography and history are now muddled as well as, to use a theatrical term, the motivation that drives the subjects.
The three sisters, Olga (Olivia Hallinan), Masha (Emily Taffe) and Irina (Holliday Grainger) in this version are London émigrés whose parents died a year earlier leaving them and their brother, Andrey, joint owners of their home.
We’re led to believe they can’t leave “here” (which appears to be a war-torn Muslin Arab country) because they couldn’t afford to buy a place back home.
They’re bored and frustrated. The youngest, the idealistic Irina, moans that they can’t work or go back to London. Why not I kept thinking to myself?
They’re modern, very well-educated women. Surely they have the nous to get on a plane and fly home, find a job in London, and, if have to, kip on a friend’s couch until somewhere to rent is found.
The men in their life gather around them like bees to a honeypot.
But their feckless brother (a powerful performance by Thom Tuck), who marries for lust then gambles the family’s money away and family friend, and failed doctor, Chebutykin (a wasted Michael Garner) are similarly affected by inertia.
Only the soldiers, who are frequent visitors and lovers, show any signs of life.
The tall, muscular Joe Sims (Broadchurch) as the besotted Solyony, is entirely believable as a slightly psycho squaddie. He has little in the way of intelligence (the character, not Joe) and prone to outbursts of violence. Just what the army likes.
But Paul McGann as a member of the Royal Marines? Really?
The slightly-built, and very intense, actor might cope well enough fighting aliens in Dr Who but he wouldn’t last an hour in basic training with the toughest unit in British Army. They’d eat him for breakfast.
Forgetting the uniform, McGann acquits himself well as the idealistic Vershinin who is also trapped in his own personal hell, married to the mentally unstable mother of his daughter.
Emily Dobbs entertains Andrey’s straight-talking wife, Natasha, whose total lack of discretion and tact often causes merriment.
The sisters appear to be victims of circumstance yet they make no effort to change their listless and thoroughly pointless lives. Of course, Chekhov’s women would have had no choice. As Reiss’s modern women they do.
Irina’s suitor Tusenbach (an engaging David Carlyle) is about the only one capable to any form of action.
He leaves the army for her, plans a future, and even fights a modern day duel for the girl.
It’s an enjoyable enough drama worth seeing for the outstanding performances of the Three Sisters.
Running until May 3.