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Three Sisters (1971)

The Financial Times 19th October 1971, B.A. Young

Richard Cottrell has an effective touch with Chekhov; the first thing you notice about this production of “Three Sisters” (for which he has provided a new translation) is the way in which the characters appear ordinary, upper-middle-class people, rather than the set of eccentrics they so often appear.

At the core, there must always be three Prozorov girls themselves, drawn so firmly by the author that there isn’t anything to add or take away. Stephanie Bidmead (Olga), Virginia McKenna (Masha) and Patricia Brake (an unusual Irina) are a well matched set and Michael Pennington has made Andrei a much more personable young man at his first appearance than one has become accustomed to – recognisably a Prozorov, conceivably a potential professor.

The first act, set in an unusually light, open scene, with no walls but a plain neutral-coloured panel background, and only a step to divide the drawing room from the dining table upstage, is very effective. A change of furniture, a change of lighting and a run of screens turns the scene into a bedroom for the fire; that garden in the last act needs only a tree and a garden seat on the empty stage. The designer is Keith Norman.

Prunella Scales, ripening marvellously from the gauche girl of the beginning to the spoilt mistress of the house at the end, is so good that she tends to submerge the sisters when they are on stage together. In general the marginal characters have been humanised either by up grading or downgrading. John Cater’s doctor is all the better for being less eccentric than customary, Daniel Massey’s Tusenbach, rather nicer than usual, John Cording’s Soliony less improbably than usual. Alan MacNaughtan has kept any hint of the romantic out of his make-up, and so emphasises the pathos of his affair with Masha. Betty Hardy is an excellent old Nanny.

The acting seemed to begin to flag towards the end of a long evening. Olga and Masha become intensely theatrical, and Andrei addresses the audience with his private miseries as if soliciting their votes. Even the translation, that begins so serviceably allows an occasional line like: “The migrant birds are already flying away.”

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