NZ Arts Festival 2008, Opera House
February 22-26 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

INITIALLY, viewing one of Chekhov’s most masterful theatre pieces in its native tongue is a huge delight. The language of Three Sisters just sings from the lips of the all Russian cast. As the three hour play progresses, the smoky vowels and throaty consonants of ruski yazik add to Chekhov’s privileged and destitute characters that air of well aimed hopelessness the playwright has crafted so well.

The positioning of translation screens however, to guide the non-Russian speaking viewers through the performance, is at odds with the drama unfolding onstage. Subtitles are projected onto screens high above, and to the left and right of the stage, meaning viewers must shift their gaze between screen and stage at a rapid pace. Strained necks and fidgeting neighbours soon seem to be wearing some audience members thin. This issue of translation sadly detracts from what is an otherwise absorbing and deeply prepared rendition of the script.

The strength of the individual characters bears the bulk of the play. Actors imbue their roles with styles distinct from one another, and very distinct from many Anglophone productions. Subtle humour is present throughout the piece but, refreshingly, is not made the primary focus of the play. Thus the more delicate themes and relationships are allowed to surface, and hang unresolved, without relying on flippancy to explain them away.

At times the dramatic scenes of loss and tension are staunchly underplayed; such as when middle sister Masha (Irina Grineva) and her husband Fyodor (Vitaly Egorov) unite, Masha claiming passionately that she is “bored” with him, “bored, bored, bored!;” or when younger sister Irina (Nelli Uvarova) loses the very thing she has sacrificed her dreams in the name of. This controlled downplaying comes across as a hallmark of Russian stoicism; and leaves us pondering Chekhov’s own intentions for the scenes.

As the three orphaned sisters; Olga (the eldest sister, played by Evgenia Dmitrieva), Masha and Irina, grow and become wiser the recurrent themes of time passing, the constancy of normality “everything will return to normal,” and the human struggle with old age “what loses its form is finished,” become increasingly evident and devastating. Their symbolic destruction is carried into the literal, when the sisters’ village is set on fire, and their house is taken away from them by their brother Andrey (Alexey Dadonov) and his wife Natasha (Ekaterina Sibiryakova), a mere “vulgar” peasant. Chekhov’s beloved character types – the wise yet resigned doctor, the happy fool, the prophetic young girl, and the disillusioned intellectual – aid and pace this overarching theme of destruction.

As Irina, Nelli Uvarova asserts her comparative youth somewhat forcefully at the beginning, flirting with the local garrison and dodging the attentions of Solenyi (Andrey Merzlikin) and ‘Baaron’ Tuzenbach (Andrey Kuzichev), two officers who vie for her affections. Merzlikin masterfully crafts Solenyi as socially painful and threatening, in strong contrast to the vibrancy of his comdrade, Tuzenbach. Irina Grineva mines the irony in her character’s situation by playing the stifled and under appreciated Masha with a near constant smile on her face. Indeed, Grineva finds the play’s strongest element of humour in the situation of her troubled character.

As with the costuming (which remains largely the same throughout) the mobile set of Three Sisters is functional, placing black and white photographic images at the rear of the stage, to show the façade of the house in which events unfold. These screens contribute to setting in all acts bar the last, where the positioning of upturned furniture amidst a backdrop of trees clouds actors’ movements somewhat, and viewers’ ability to mentally map the space.

It is a shame that some slight technical miscalculations impinged on this Chekhov International Theatre Festival and Cheek by Jowl production of Three Sisters, though given the restrictions of their tour it is perhaps forgivable. Russian speaking viewers or those already well familiar with the play may gain more than others from this show, but Chekhov aficionados and regular theatre goers should not be immune to its novelty and style.