Three Sisters Review National Theatre 2003

Wednesday, 13 August, 2003
Review by: 
Alan Bird

In Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ we watch the Prozorov household as they try to escape the misery that holds them firmly in its grip. Trapped in a small provincial town the three sister’s dream of a future life for themselves in Moscow, remembering happier days before their parents died, and struggling to make their present life bearable. In their efforts to escape the tediousness of their humdrum lives, the sisters merely become further ensnared in despondency.

In Katie Mitchell’s slow atmospheric production we are made vividly aware of time passing and with it the dreams of the three sisters. Four or five times throughout the play the actors perform in slow motion for about 15 seconds, to emphasise that it is as if time itself has suddenly become frozen. Sadly, I found this technique tedious, the script itself is unhurried as it slowly narrows the hopes of the three sisters until in the end they painfully accept their fate of joyless monotony. A good production should surely capture this poignancy within the script without having to resort to theatrical tricks that merely fill this three and a half hour production with unnecessary silence.

Lorraine Ashbourne produces by far the best performance as Olga, the eldest sister. She captures Olga’s kind and compassionate nature that allows her to avoid the same depths of despair with which her two sisters so rapidly drown. Olga is more restrained in her emotions and so it is acutely painful when out of pity, she briefly kisses and embraces Kulgyin her brother-in-law, and her restraint momentarily slips to reveal her own languishing desire.

Eve Best as Masha looks suitably forlorn and increasing dishevelled, she physically captures the hopelessness of her character. Anna Maxwell Martin is an adequate Irina, though I wish she were able to capture her character’s emotion without looking so pensive.

Angus Wright gives Kulygin, Masha’s husband, personality and presence. Kulygin is so often portrayed as an intellectual bore; here he has warmth and a prowess that helps you to see why Masha married him. Ben Daniels as Vershinin has the looks and charms of a heartthrob and he mesmerises rather than bores with his orations of a brighter future for humanity. Tim McMullan skilfully manages to portray Solyony, the slightly mad junior captain, without exaggerating the menacing aspects of his character or making Solyony’s bizarre behaviour annoying.

The atmospheric staging, and the use of photography and slow motion to emphasise the passing of time keeps you distant from the emotions that this play should bring to the fore.

After Michael Blakemore’s marvellous production of the Three Sisters at the Playhouse Theatre, which only ended in June this year, one wonders if the National Theatre may not have made a mistake in programming another production of the play so soon. Blakemore’s production was inspired, and immediately enshrouded you in the intense emotions of the characters. This National Theatre production is pedestrian in comparison.


Notices from the popular press....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Tremendous staging." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Her [Katie Mitchell] production’s main strength is its careful delineation of relationships." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "Mitchell's production is never more than mildly affecting." RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Daringly paced, elegiac version." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "A uniquely satisfying rendering of this great play."

External links to full reviews from newspapers

The Guardian
Daily Telegraph
The Times
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