The Irish Times
by Helen Meany, Gaiety Theatre, 10 October 2009
A surge in enrolment in Russian language classes is probably a secondary aim of Cheek by Jowl theatre company, but it's hard to experience their all-Russian production of Chekhov without being captivated by the cadences of this impressive ensemble. Cheek by Jowl's directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are almost honorary Russians by now, and this is a co-production with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow. We can see why: it is a Three Sisters for connoisseurs.
Simplicity and clarity of staging allow the complexity to emerge gradually. Rather than overlaying anything extraneous in the form of reinterpretation, the layers already present in the text are excavated. It helps to know the play in advance: to know that three sisters in a provincial town at the turn of the 20th century yearn for wider horizons. For them, this is synonymous with a return to Moscow and an opportunity to use their "superfluous knowledge".
The play's focus is not on what happens, though there are “events”, certainly: a fire, a duel, a love affair. The emphasis is on what the characters say about themselves and how that changes over the years, as disappointments mount and threaten to crush them. Increasingly, their faith is placed in a distant future, in which the audience is implicated, through their direct address to us.
The freshness here comes from precision, as Donnellan and Ormerod pay attention to every detail of performance and characterisation, picking out the isolation of each character within the close-knit group. The soldier Solyony's attempt to seduce the youngest sister Irina is portrayed as a violent sexual assault, the shock of which propels her towards a pragmatic marriage with the Baron. Here Olga, the eldest sister and reluctant headmistress, often portrayed as a ramrod, is as sensitive as her siblings. Drawn towards Vershinin, her sister Masha's lover, she makes him practise his farewell speech to Masha with a steeliness that borders on satisfaction.
Masha's brilliant smile and desperate laughter suggest she knows all along that her love for Vershinin will never flower; that he will depart with his regiment, leaving her with her husband Kulygin. Blotting out the evidence of her affair, Kulygin buries his head in a pillow on her lap, seeking comfort from her like a little boy, the child they never had. One of many delicate moments, it matches in expressive imagery the question Olga asks the audience at the end: why is there so much suffering?