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Three Sisters at the Barbican

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 30 May 2018

In an unnamed provincial town somewhere in Russia, three pretty sisters and their intelligent brother are trying to work out how to live their lives as their class crumbles around them. The sisters all want to return to where they were born but this being Chekhov, there are many obstacles in their way. The Russian Cheek By Jowl company presents Three Sisters at the Barbican, and Jo Fletcher-Cross was at the first night.

Cheek By Jowl is an unusual company. Formed in England in 1981 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod to find new ways to present classic text, avoiding cliché, it has toured all around the world, but has worked particularly extensively in Russia. In 1999, the Russian Theatre Confederation invited Donnellan and Ormerod to form their own company of Russian actors in Moscow. It is that company which presents Three Sisters at the Barbican, entirely in Russian, with English surtitles.

The play opens on the youngest sister, Irina's (Nelly Uvarova) name day – the Russian equivalent of birthdays. Olga (Evgenia Dmitrieva), the eldest, teaches in a school, and Masha (Irina Grineva), the middle sister, is married to a teacher at the same school. It is also the first anniversary of their father's death. We see the sisters sat in a close group with their brother, Andrey (Alexei Dadonov), beautifully lit, as Olga explains why it is a special day. This combination of celebration and melancholy flavours the entire first act, with the family joined by officers from the army for a meal for Irina.

The sisters all long to return to Moscow, where they were born, and where Andrey is hoping to become a professor at the university. Sadly, circumstances begin to conspire against them. Andrey marries a local girl, Natalia (Ekaterina Sibiryakova) and they have a sickly baby. His gambling debts soon threaten the dreams of all of his sisters, who begin to reveal how desperately unsatisfied and unhappy they are with their lives.

Three Sisters is an intricate and dark play, set at the very end of the nineteenth century. Eschewing typical heavy and detailed sets, instead Nick Ormerod creates a light and simple world for the sisters to inhabit, using just small tables and a series of chairs to create the numerous settings. A wind-up gramophone and a simple backdrop of the outside of their home completes the illusion, cleverly augmented by the subtle use of music by Sergey Chekryshov and the sound design of Valery Antonov.

Sergey Timchenko and Sergey Govurushkin's lighting helps create the strained and cramped atmosphere – a general dinner party conversation becomes a private tête-à-tête between two lovers with a clever change to cool blue surrounding lights, another couple seek some privacy but are denied by the harsh glare of light upon them as well as the stares of other diners.

Despair and tragedy are the watchwords of Three Sisters, but this beautiful production illuminates so much more.

Three Sisters is at the Barbican until 19 May



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