Few productions are blessed with both wonderful material and a team as extraordinarily talented as the one working on Sydney Theatre Company’s Three Sisters.
On paper, it ticks just about every available box: a line-up of rising and established stage stars, the return of Andrew Upton to adapting Chekhov, director Kip Williams bringing his incisive contemporary lens to the play, and a design team featuring some of our most thoughtful and experienced theatre-makers.
Despite its promise — and the flashes of brilliance that inevitably shine through when you put a team of such a high calibre together — this Three Sisters is strangely flat and unfocused.
As the educated, upper-class Prozorov family grapples with life following the death of its patriarch, the production proves a hit-and-miss affair, not always landing either its comic or tragic notes.
Designer Alice Babidge has created a chic and abstract space, with a long wall of glass dividing the stage in half. The majority of the action happens in front of the wall, which is both transparent and reflective. Actors in front of the wall are reflected back at the audience, appearing doubled. It’s a trippy effect, enhanced beautifully by Nick Schlieper’s gentle lighting, but the rather sterile design leaves these characters unanchored and their world poorly defined.
As the titular sisters, Alison Bell (Olga, the eldest), Eryn Jean Norvill (Masha, in the middle), and Miranda Daughtry (Irina, the youngest) are all very good, carving out their individual characters. Unfortunately, they all employ fairly distinctive acting styles, making it sometimes hard to believe that they all exist within the same world, let alone the same family.
Bell brings some much-needed lightness and daggy laughs in the first act, while Norvill is driven by an almost furious lust and dissatisfaction. Daughtry makes an impressive Sydney Theatre Company debut as the youngster whose idealism slowly slips away.
Brandon McClelland brings an appropriate ineffectiveness as their pitiful brother Andrei, while Harry Greenwood is full of sweetness as Tusenbach. But Mark Leonard Winter’s attempts to blow some life into his big speeches as the colonel Vershinin don’t quite gel with the pervasive realism of other performances.
Nikki Shiels is very funny as Andrei’s wife Natasha, although her late ’70s glam costuming marks her out rather too obviously as one of the piece’s clowns.
The action of the play — or rather the inaction — is driven by the stasis of these privileged characters, who find themselves consistently unable to effect any significant change across the five years of life traced across the three hour running time.
Williams, Upton and the cast all struggle to find the right tone in this respect, and they frequently fail to traverse the gaps between comedy and tragedy. And although Upton manages to effectively translate Chekhov’s big philosophical speech-making into a more contemporary and dramatically satisfying style, his adaptation feels too long.
On the one hand, it is important for audiences to have a sense of the passing time that’s being squandered, but on the other, the angst simply outstays its welcome.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this production; it features good actors doing generally good work in a good play. It has plenty of merit. But it lacks the essential electricity and the messiness of real life, and comes perilously close to falling into a the trap of making Chekhov dour and painfully ponderous.
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Featured image: Alison Bell, Miranda Daughtry and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo by Brett Boardman