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Three Sisters (1990)

Independent on Sunday, 1st April 1990, Irving Wardle

I’ve known you since you were born,’ the old doctor tells Irina in the first act of “Three Sisters”. Later on, Masha tackles him about this again: ‘My mother – did you love her?’ Chekhov leaves you to guess whether or not he is Irina’s father; but the question is settled in Adrian Noble’s production, where the doctor is played by Cyril Cusack and the sisters by his three daughters, Sorcha, Sinead and Niamh.

As you might expect, the stage glows with family warmth and the gestures of long familiarity. At first sight, the girls are huddled on a sofa, all sharing the same cheroot. Irina stops Masha whispering by clapping a hand over her mouth. At the arrival of Vershinin, they turn into giggling teenagers, clustering around, bombarding him with mischievous questions; then they drag on the reluctant brother Andrei (Mark Lambert) and regress right back to childhood as they tease and tickle the squirmingly embarrassed boy, who stands there clutching his violin like a teddy bear, while Cusack senior looks in misty-eyed, waiting to present the samovar to his favourite girl.

Between that moment and the final tableau, where the sisters melt into each other as an icon of endurance, the play takes them on separate journeys that reveal their dissimilarities as much as their emotional ties. And it happens that the three Cusacks present strongly contrasted physical types corresponding to the Chekhov trio: Sorcha, a strong-jawed capable figure who also transmits Olga’s incurable exhaustion; Sinead, the classic beauty with equal resources for Masha’s lyrical passion and savage tantrums; and Niamh, whose nymph-like detachment carries her through from Irina’s name day to her bereavement.

They all have wonderful moments: but in terms of long-range development it is Irina’s show, as hope gradually drains away and the radiantly trusting girl shrivels into a bespectacled governess-like figure with scraped-back hair, whose compulsive smile now transmits only loss and panic.

The new text is by Frank McGuinness, whose most visible contribution is to sharpen up the dialogue beyond the call of duty (it is not in character for the doctor to say that Natasha is ‘ having it away with Protopopov’).

Noble’s production also has some jarring elements; such as the extra-textual appearance of a brattish Bobik, further to incriminate Orla Brady’s vixenish Natasha.

Otherwise, a couple of under-cast performances aside, this is a searchingly beautiful production; with a superb, many-sided Vershinin from Michael Pennington; analogue staging by Bob Crowley; and impeccably sensitive scenic orchestration, from the bold use of direct to the most elaborate atmospheric control, as in the party scene where Fedotik’s guitar gradually draws the card-players and talkers on to the floor, and the sisters are locked in a dance with their old nurse (Anna Manahan) until, at a word from Natasha, the warmth turns to ice.

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