Three Sisters opened at the Southwark Playhouse in a new version by award-winning writer Anya Reiss. Reiss, well known for her work at the Royal Court, her modern adaptations of Spring Awakening and another Chekov with last year's The Seagull, now tackles Three Sisters: a challenge in itself which Reiss takes it on head-first with mixed results.
The setting ('near a British Embassy, overseas, now') works in many ways, yet the question of why the family are unable to return home is never answered. The story opens with the three sisters desperate to return to London. Irina (Holliday Grainger) is particularly fascinated by how different life in London is to where they currently reside (somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa the script suggests). Without the presence of Moscow there are less allusions to the decay of class, yet the hope for a return to cosmopolitan life is still evident and very much in focus. The thoroughly Russian themes of time and the meaning of life, too, remain crucial to the plot.
Russell Bolam teams up with Reiss once again after a successful run of The Seagull, teasing out the frustration of the characters and creating a claustrophobic world where everyone is eager to escape. The arrival of the passionate and optimistic Vershinin (Paul McGann) shines a light into the angst shared by the sisters, and the first act has moments of brilliance, particularly the karaoke scene in which Andrey (Thom Tuck) lets loose. This slice of family life is ruptured by the arrival of Natasha (Emily Dobbs) showcasing the beginning of her takeover as matriarch. Other scenes however, such as one punctuated by the loud ticking of the clock, start the play off on the wrong foot, making the opening seem lethargic. The running time is 2 hours, yet at many times the play feels much longer.
Those expecting a fresh take on this story may not find the writing as bold as they would hope. The production feels tentative, never delving as deep into the world as it could. In many ways it feels as if it's a modern adaptation as opposed to a whole new version. The writing doesn't allow the characters to fully realise their relationships, with Vershinin seeming to barely notice the affectations of Masha (Emily Taaffe). There is a standout performance from Grainger who grasps the hopefulness of Irina's mission to flee whilst maintaining a childlike energy and wonder of the world. Taaffe manages to keep a lid on Masha's inner turmoil of being with the wrong man, before letting the fractures of her emotional life fully crack her spirit. Olivia Hallinan is a joy to watch, with wonderful stage presence as the matriarch of the family, while the sinisterness of Solyony is well captured by Joe Sims in a complex and dark performance. McCann gives a wonderful performance as the romantic, optimistic soldier who steals Masha's heart. Not as radically different as one would wish for, but a strong production nevertheless.