3 May 2014

A powerful Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse

It was Chekhov who first took me to the Southwark Playhouse with The Seagull in 2012 and it was Chekhov who took me back there this time to see Three Sisters. The same team were behind both productions and that was one of the attractions.

I had seen the marvellous version of Three Sisters at the Young Vic around the same time as I saw The Seagull but that was no barrier to seeing it again. I expected this version to be quite different (it was) and, besides, there is plenty of depth to Chekhov to justify a second viewing.

I also managed to maintain the tradition of seeing plays on their very last day.

It had been a long road to Southwark that had taken me via Brixton to Dulwich for some Hockney then on to a favourite restaurant (Brigade) at London Bridge before tracing the last few steps back to the theatre. I arrived in good time to grab a beer and possibly the last free seat in the bar area. It was busy.

The seat was conveniently close to the door through to the two studios so I was aware when the queue in had got sufficiently large for me to join it and so I was able to capture a preferred front-row seat.

This version of Three Sisters was set in the present day (the doctor read that day's newspaper to make the point) in some unnamed British Post-Colonial outpost where the sisters dreamed of being back in the London of their childhood.

Other than that it seemed like a fairly straight interpretation. The language was modern but not aggressively so and was close to my recollection of the previous version that I had seen.

The production was much simpler which helped me to differentiate the two performances, though there were some touches in this one that I felt were taken and adapted from the Old Vic production, e.g. the way that they sang Common People at the party.

With a simpler production the success or failure of the production was down to the cast and they did a fine job. Unfortunately the Southwark Playhouse Archive only lists the actors and does not say what roles they played, and I cannot be bothered to do the much research to find out so I can only make a few comments.

Paul McGann was masterful as the soldier who had to go home end and the woman he left behind, Masha, was played especially nicely by Emily Taaffe too (though some of the outfits she wore were a bit difficult to understand). In a large cast, the two other sisters and their sister-in-law also stood out. And those that did not shine as much were at least competent and often better. This was a fine cast.

There were some flaws in the updating that other reviewers have pointed out but these did little to lessen either the characterisations or the story which the play is all about. Though that did beg the question as to the point of updating the play rather than just, for example, relocating it; there is nothing particularly unusual about the period or the location that makes the original version difficult to understand.

The build-up to the endings and then the endings themselves were powerful and dramatic. I knew what was coming but was still swept up in the moment. Three Sisters is a great play and this production played to its strengths.

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