The characters in Rudabeh Gray’s production are already clustered on stage, dressed in warm reds, greens and browns and talking quietly amongst themselves. The studio is warm and the set looks cosy, filled with books, mugs and patterned fabrics, creating an impression of comfort and shelter in the space before the audience which during the course of play will come to be characterised instead by a sense of stagnation and containment. The insularity which Chekhov develops so painstakingly is not for everyone, but this is a condition for the most part of the text, not of this production.
As one would hope, the Three Sisters themselves give excellent performances in this production. Millie Tupper is exceptional as Irina. She is beautifully light and radiant in her initial excitement for work; she is devastating in her ultimate disappointment with life. The authenticity in the way she broke down over the realisation that she will never go to Moscow nor have the life that she dreamed of made was my standout performance of the production. Masha (Martha West) stalks around the stage with dark, fervent eyes, providing moments of relief with her wry humour and offering a sense of profound knowledge and sadness. The groundedness with which Laura Henderson Child plays Olga means that she is most striking in her anger, capable of unsettling the stage with a few words of suppressed rage.
The male roles in this production suffer somewhat in comparison with the emotional intensity of the sisters. Andrei (Charlie Barlow) performs exasperation and exhaustion easily, but is perhaps never electric enough for his descent into mediocrity to be truly sad. Vershinin (Tom Bannon) is best in his interactions with Masha. Gray makes interesting use of multi-rolling, and praise must be given to Ruby Gold for her effortless switching between parts. She is superb as Natasha, using a twitchy physicality and perfectly pitching her voice in her rendering of control executed through the pretence of affection.
The production is pervaded with a sense of limitation which is amplified by the constant presence of the cast on stage – what begins as comfort and security becomes restriction and dissatisfaction. More could have been done with the characters hovering in the background, who had the potential to magnify moments of intrusion or insularity through simple gestures or movements. The figures lounging around the back of the stage also detract from the play’s sense of liminality as the understanding of who is coming out and in is muddied.
There is preoccupation with knowledge, with the loss of it, the good use of it, the waste of it. There is intimacy and the shattering of it; the pain of interruption. There is nearly always someone reading. If you too are tired and dissatisfied, the performance may be a draining one. But I would place emphasis on the clarity and nuance of emotional expression which make this piece so very good. The cast is tuned in beautifully to each other and the sisters in particular interact with a wonderful familiarity. I loved the production precisely for its intensity and its self-conscious submersion.