Robert Tanitch reviews Three Sisters at Southwark Playhouse, London SE
Anton Chekhov’s play one of the great plays of the 20th century, premiered in Moscow in 1901. It is a bitter tirade against the pain and anguish of life’s injustices, its unrealised dreams and its opportunities missed. “There is no such thing as happiness,” says one of the characters.
One of the reasons for Chekhov’s enduring success is that audiences can so easily identify with his characters’ suffering. The play is not the tragedy of any one individual but the concerted tragedy of a whole group of people.
Olga, Masha and Irina live in a dull, provincial, Russian backwater and are only too aware that life is passing them by. They yearn for a better, more fulfilling existence and long to go to Moscow. It’s a pipe dream. Moscow is 950 miles away and they will never get there. They are doomed to either spinsterhood or sterile marriages.
The final moments with the departure of the battalion, the military band playing off-stage, and the sisters weeping their hearts out, is one of theatre’s most unforgettable images.
Anya Reiss has reworked the play and set it in the 21st century, a totally unnecessary exercise. The sisters are now in the Middle East and want to go to London.
The emotional content sometimes works; but the modern context doesn’t help either the play or the characters. Russell Bolam has a good cast. Emily Taafe as Masha is especially good. But the play doesn’t seem as good. Those who know Chekhov’s Three Sisters well will feel short-changed.