I know very little about Chekhov, apart from a few abysmal student productions seen many years ago. However, recent experience has taught me that with a little patience and an open mind a 19th Century novel can be utterly mad and stealthily sexy. With this in mind I approached Chekhov's Three Sisters, not knowing what to expect and was more than pleasantly surprised.
At first I was a little flummoxed, the profusion of characters being a little overwhelming, but relationships and feelings quickly became apparent. Who was who and wanted what and who became clear, but not clear enough to belie and belittle the following plot.
The story builds slowly, and though it become evident that this is not going to be a cheering play with a hearty ending, there is a bitter sweet comedy through out. This shy humour was a little spoilt by members of the audience who guffawed at things where perhaps a wry smile would be more appropriate, but was still sweet and touching. The characters discomfort with themselves, their feelings, situation and each other is gently acted, and means that you would have to be a complete egomaniacal twat not sympathise with them.
The ending is where the audiences patience is repaid. Although at no time the play becomes boring and loses the audience, it is a rather slow and steady build up to the finale. The denouement is heartbreaking and intense. Although the play is not uplifting, leaving me feeling rather lonely and sad, the ending brings the kind of macabre hope which colours the end of Heller's Catch 22.
I could not single out a single performance as weaker than the others, and when the flaws in the central trio of sisters gets a little annoying, it is clear that the problems are with the difficult characters, not the actresses performances. The set, lighting and design is beautifully understated, with the final garden setting being almost magically simple, with stunning magnificent birch trunks.
So, although this play is imbued with false hopes, frustrated relationships, failed romance, thwarted ambitions and seems to set up every loving relationship for an inevitable ending in miserable debacle, there is something rather soothing about its practised and poised pessimism. You come out half strangely comforted and half wanting to phone your ex. This is a tale of loneliness, but it is a lovely one.
Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, till 11 October 2008