Three Sisters

Lynne Lancaster

A play about the trapped routine, tedium and dreariness of the privileged educated bourgeoisie.
Three Sisters

Image: Nikki Shiels and Brandon McClelland in Sydney Theatre Company’s Production of Three Sisters © Brett Boardman.

Andrew Upton’s fresh new translation coupled with Kip Williams’ direction have transposed this play to a timeless era – with the opening set suggesting a time in the late 1970s.

Set in a remote Russian town Chekov’s iconic play tells the story of three sisters: Irina, young and full of ambition, she is passionate and looking for her purpose. Masha is in a loveless marriage, she wants to feel the outburst of passion once more. Olga is the eldest and dedicated deputy principal at the local high school.

Set across a span of several years, Three Sisters delves into the hopes, the loves and the sacrifices of the three women and the various people who cross their paths particularly the soldiers stationed in the town. 

In the first half of the play the script was biting and witty, with most of the audience roaring with delighted laughter – there’s also lots of strong language throughout. Three Sisters is sensationally staged and designed by Alice Babidge, from its opening use of reflective mirrors (for most of the play) to bunk bedrooms and a grey sparse winter tree for the final scenes. There was also wonderful snow effects at one point. With the major fire in the second half indicated by wafting mist. Nick Schlieper's fragile, atmospheric lighting accentuates the various moods Nate Edmondson’s sound design (planes flying overhead) and music by The Sweats accentuate the contemporary relevance of Chekhov's story (yet keep its Russian astringency).

The play hasn’t been done in ‘traditional’ period style and the famous refrain of wanting to go to Moscow has been changed – one of the sisters declares she wants to go home.

There are sterling performances from the whole cast and the three sisters are tremendous. The boredom, ennui, the struggles and stress of life are painfully captured. Miranda Daughtry is extremely impressive as Irina, with explosive emotions that are both mesmerizing and palpable. As school teacher Olga Alison Bell reveals the sometimes overlooked sarcasm and irony in Chekhov’s work and has moments of explosive power too. Eryn Jean Norvill as Masha, always dressed in black, is intense and febrile, at times seeming slightly mad and awkward and revealing a hidden talent as a fine singer and pianist as well. She has fallen out love with her husband Kulygin (Chris Ryan) and is desperately in love with Vershinin (Mark Leonard Winter). When Verhsinin has to leave she is crushed but returns forgiven to Kulygin. There is also biting dialogue and rushed comedy at various points. (Masha attacking the Christmas tree for example, or her wild dance in the snow.) 

The sisters’ listless brother Andrei (Brandon McLelland) is a plump red haired Apollo who becomes a hen pecked husband. Natasha his wife is scathingly played by Nikki Shiels as self-centered uncaring, rude, vulgar and destructively manipulative. Doctor Chebutikin (Anthony Brandon Wong) was thoughtfully as a man mourning his lost youth, memories and training and now driven to drink. Tusenbach, in love with Irina was terrifically played by Harry Greenwood. Alas, their love is doomed.

Fundamentally it’s a play about the trapped routine, tedium and dreariness of the privileged educated bourgeoisie. Nothing of real importance happens for years, and these three women are mysteriously stuck in stasis unable (or unwilling?) to take meaningful action. As in The Cherry Orchard we see how everything turns disastrous and is stripped back to the bare minimum at the end.

This play was a fresh take on the dry, dreary trapped life of the three sisters and their friends who are full of existential angst.

Rating: 3½ stars out of 5

Three Sisters

Director: Kip Williams 

Cast: Alison Bell, Peter Carroll, Callan Colley, Miranda Daughtry, Harry Greenwood, Melita Jurisic, Brandon McClelland, Eryn Jean Norvill, Rahel Romahn, Chris Ryan, Nikki Shiels, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu

The STC‘s The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov as adapted by Andrew Upton runs at the Opera House November 6 – December 16 2017.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.