Three Sisters

Opera House, Wellington

22/02/2008 - 26/02/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Billed as one of the hottest theatre tickets of 2007, Three Sisters dazzles and surprises with its stellar Russian ensemble cast. Under the strong direction of Declan Donnellan, Chekhov’s celebrated play unforgettably bursts out into entirely new dimensions.

Arguably the greatest play of the 20th century, Three Sisters is a sweeping family saga. Olga, Masha and Irina live with their brother Andrey in a small provincial town, dreaming of a better life in Moscow while dealing with the frustrations and dissatisfactions of the present. The arrival of the debonair officer Vershinin turns their world upside down. The family’s eternal struggle to find meaning in life is charted by the changing moods of the play.

Donnellan together with Nick Ormerod formed Cheek by Jowl in 1981. It has been hailed as one of the 10 greatest theatre companies in the world, making its mark on the theatre world with a drive to re-examine classic texts, emphasising the actor’s art. Cheek by Jowl productions have been seen in hundreds of countries.

Donnellan and Ormerod have been collaborating with Russian companies, including the Bolshoi and Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, since the mid-1980s. Donnellan became the first non-Russian to win a prestigious Golden Mask award – Russia’s premiere theatre award. Building on this success, Donnellan and Ormerod formed a company in Moscow with some of the greatest Russian actors of our day under the auspices of the Chekhov Festival.

This co-production of Three Sisters is a sublime, achingly humane interpretation of one of Chekhov’s finest plays.


Prozorov Andrey Sergeevich Alexey Dadonov
Natalia Ivanovna - Ekaterina Sibiryakova
Olga Evgenia - Dmitrieva
Masha - Irina Grineva
Irina - Nelli Uvarova
Kulygin Fedor Iljich - Vitaly Egorov and Sergey Lanbamin
Vershinin Alexandre Ignatievich - Alexander Feklistov
Tuzenbakh Nikolay Ljvovich - Andrey Kuzichev and Artem Semakin
Solenyi Vasily Vasilievich - Andrey Merzlikin and Evgeny Pisarev
Chebutykin Ivan Romanovich - Mikhail Zhigalov and Igor Yasulovich
Fedotik Alexey Petrovich - Yury Makeev
Rode Vladimir Karpovich - Mikhail Dementyev
Ferapont - Igor Yasulovich and Mikhail Zhigalov
Anfisa - Galina Moracheva

3 hrs incl. interval

Just delicious

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

Three hours of Chekhov, in Russian, with surtitles, qualifies as an epic for cast and audience.  Director Declan Donnellan and his just extraordinary cast understand Chekhov, when the characters talk of suffering you know Russians speak from experience. 

However there is a joyousness to this production of Three Sisters not squashed out by too much grimness – smiles through the tears, dancing on stage, hope that all three will weather the storm and maybe, though probably not, get to Moscow one day. 

You get a feeling for the town, though you never see it nor need to, that indeed life is slipping by, where "you know everyone and yet you’re a stranger".  The set is simple and magic for it, tables and chairs and a doll’s house. 

The actors playing the sisters Olga, Masha and Irina are outstanding. The director doesn’t rush things, long looks are exchanged. 

The surtitles are a drag, near the front you have a choice of three but none are conveniently placed and by turning your head you lose too much of the on stage action. And with this you don’t want to miss anything because of the nuances, the calibre of the acting and direction, it’s all just delicious.  


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Surtitle positioning impinges on deeply prepared production

Review by Melody Nixon 29th Feb 2008

Initially, viewing one of Chekhov’s most masterful theatre pieces in its native tongue is a huge delight. The language of Three Sisters just sings from the lips of the all Russian cast. As the three hour play progresses, the smoky vowels and throaty consonants of ruski yazik add to Chekhov’s privileged and destitute characters that air of well aimed hopelessness the playwright has crafted so well.

The positioning of translation screens however, to guide the non-Russian speaking viewers through the performance, is at odds with the drama unfolding onstage. Subtitles are projected onto screens high above, and to the left and right of the stage, meaning viewers must shift their gaze between screen and stage at a rapid pace. Strained necks and fidgeting neighbours soon seem to be wearing some audience members thin. This issue of translation sadly detracts from what is an otherwise absorbing and deeply prepared rendition of the script.

The strength of the individual characters bears the bulk of the play. Actors imbue their roles with styles distinct from one another, and very distinct from many Anglophone productions. Subtle humour is present throughout the piece but, refreshingly, is not made the primary focus of the play. Thus the more delicate themes and relationships are allowed to surface, and hang unresolved, without relying on flippancy to explain them away.

At times the dramatic scenes of loss and tension are staunchly underplayed; such as when middle sister Masha (Irina Grineva) and her husband Fyodor (Vitaly Egorov) unite, Masha claiming passionately that she is “bored” with him, “bored, bored, bored!;” or when younger sister Irina (Nelli Uvarova) loses the very thing she has sacrificed her dreams in the name of. This controlled downplaying comes across as a hallmark of Russian stoicism; and leaves us pondering Chekhov’s own intentions for the scenes.

As the three orphaned sisters; Olga (the eldest sister, played by Evgenia Dmitrieva), Masha and Irina, grow and become wiser the recurrent themes of time passing, the constancy of normality “everything will return to normal,” and the human struggle with old age “what loses its form is finished,” become increasingly evident and devastating. Their symbolic destruction is carried into the literal, when the sisters’ village is set on fire, and their house is taken away from them by their brother Andrey (Alexey Dadonov) and his wife Natasha (Ekaterina Sibiryakova), a mere “vulgar” peasant. Chekhov’s beloved character types – the wise yet resigned doctor, the happy fool, the prophetic young girl, and the disillusioned intellectual – aid and pace this overarching theme of destruction.

As Irina, Nelli Uvarova asserts her comparative youth somewhat forcefully at the beginning, flirting with the local garrison and dodging the attentions of Solenyi (Andrey Merzlikin) and ‘Baaron’ Tuzenbach (Andrey Kuzichev), two officers who vie for her affections. Merzlikin masterfully crafts Solenyi as socially painful and threatening, in strong contrast to the vibrancy of his comdrade, Tuzenbach. Irina Grineva mines the irony in her character’s situation by playing the stifled and under appreciated Masha with a near constant smile on her face. Indeed, Grineva finds the play’s strongest element of humour in the situation of her troubled character.

As with the costuming (which remains largely the same throughout) the mobile set of Three Sisters is functional, placing black and white photographic images at the rear of the stage, to show the façade of the house in which events unfold. These screens contribute to setting in all acts bar the last, where the positioning of upturned furniture amidst a backdrop of trees clouds actors’ movements somewhat, and viewers’ ability to mentally map the space.

It is a shame that some slight technical miscalculations impinged on this Chekhov International Theatre Festival and Cheek by Jowl production of Three Sisters, though given the restrictions of their tour it is perhaps forgivable. Russian speaking viewers or those already well familiar with the play may gain more than others from this show, but Chekhov aficionados and regular theatre goers should not be immune to its novelty and style.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Richness and muddle in masterful Chekhov

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 23rd Feb 2008

Sixteen years ago Cheek by Jowl brought a superb As You Like It to the International Arts Festival. They have returned with an equally memorable cast and with an equally superb production of Chekov’s masterpiece and the only play he described as a drama.

Throughout the play’s shifting moods of life in the remote provincial garrison town that the Prozorov sisters yearn to escape from there is an undercurrent of a lyrical sadness that pervades the play: the sisters longing to return to their past or dreaming of a happier future but not coping with the present.

In the famous final scene when the sisters are alone facing an uncertain future there is a mixture of hope and despair which Chekhov somehow manages to interweave one with the other so that only time and life itself will decide what will happen to them before it is forgotten that they ever existed. Only in Waiting for Godot, as others have pointed out, has Chekhov’s stoicism in the face of oblivion been so powerfully expressed in the theatre.

Donnellan’s production moves with an effortless fluency. He avoids creating a realistic setting or atmosphere which a huge bonus allowing the actors a freedom of expression that is a form of heightened realism. Vershinin’s bouts of philosophizing become mini-performances directed straight to the audience.

The actors rearrange the furniture to form walls, a stage, and the scattered chairs create a sense of physical confusion reinforcing the sense of muddle in the lives of the characters.

The acting is rich in details. My favourite was when Natasha walks past her sisters-in-law oblivious to their presence and Masha imitates her and all three burst into fits of giggles. The mood changes immediately when Masha admits to having fallen in love with Vershinin.

When Masha in the final act cheerfully waves to the migrating birds flying overhead, her wave becomes a rifle in which she mimes shooting a bird, as indifferent to its fate as she and the others seem to be over the death of the Baron.

It’s a lovely, fascinating production and I doubt if we will see a better Chekhov for many years, though I found three surtitle screens distracting, always in my peripheral vision. 


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Clear vitality and fresh approach limited by cognitive dislocation

Review by John Smythe 23rd Feb 2008

There is certainly a clarity of vision and a freshness in the delivery of this Declan Donnellan-directed Three Sisters, born of a belief, shared with many Russian directors (to quote a programme note), "that the main task of the director is to maintain the collective interplay of the cast and that the scene takes place not only in the space between the actors, but in the space between the actors and the audience."

This Russian arm of Cheek by Jowl, brought here by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival (which commissioned this production to open in 2005), exudes a welcoming openness in their performance style. Their ensemble acting has a depth born of the years they have spent first rehearsing the play then keeping it in repertoire, yet there is a vitality and immediacy in their actions.

Their core physicality transcends any sense that their main job is to ‘speak the speech’. They are their characters to the marrow and to their extremities. And we in the audience are the future that they keep looking towards. Thus we are addressed directly at times: an inspired touch.

It could be said that Chekhov’s later plays at least – Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – are essentially the same play, about the decadence and the inevitable demise of out-of-touch, self-indulgent Russian middle class values, with different leading characters. More importantly, it is widely accepted that their real juice is in the subtext. Given this, I fully expect this Russian language production (with English surtitles) to work a treat.

It doesn’t – not for me, anyway – because subtext is relative to the text and it becomes two-dimensional on its own. Having to glance away to read the translation then reconnect with the on stage action is completely different from remaining fully engaged with the unfolding story as the brain processes the text/subtext relationship, and is free to register who is talking then keep listening while studying the non-verbal responses of other characters …

The cognitive dislocation is not unlike when a screen soundtrack is out of sync with the actors’ lips. I found it impossible, under these circumstances, to lose myself in the world of the Prozorov family and their visitors; to relish the subtleties of interplay, the ambivalence and contradictions Donnellan thrills at (in the programme), let alone to empathise with the inner feelings of anyone. (Of course the Russian-speaking acquaintances I note in the audience are having an entirely different experience, and I envy them.)

That said, even a wallflower can get some value from the dance if they’ve a mind to.

Nick Ormerod’s set is superb. Two slender vertical screens hang upstage to capture projected portions of the family’s palatial country home exterior. There is blackness beyond and to the sides. The large stage is strewn with faded tables and chairs of the period and these are variously used to create a long dining table, a drawing room stage, cupboards from which to extract charity clothing after the fire in a neighbouring district … For the last scene, outside, the two hanging screens are replaced by three on which a forest of slender trees appears.

The three sisters – Olga (Evgenia Dmitrieva), Masha (Irina Grineva) and Irina (Nelli Uvarova) – have clearly been a tight three all their lives (well, all of Irina’s 20 years, anyway), perhaps even more so in the year since the death of their widower father, a Brigadier whose transfer took them from the beloved Moscow 11 years earlier. They indulge their bother Andrey and form a formidable clique for his fiancée Natalia (a.k.a. Natasha – played by Ekaterina Sibiryakova) to breach.

Now stuck in a small provincial town, the tedium of their lives is relieved somewhat by the visits from members of the local garrison. Chief among them is Vershinin (Alexander Feklistov) who becomes attractive to Masha as her love wanes for her over-attentive schoolteacher husband Kulygin (either Vitaly Egorov or Sergey Lanbamin, we weren’t told which).

To say I find this Vershinin nondescript and lacking in essential charisma may be nothing more than to exemplify what gets lost in the dislocation described above. On the other hand replacing the stock-standard fustiness of Kulygin with an ebullience that in itself becomes cloying comes across very clearly.

Likewise the idealism of Baron Tuzenbakh (Andrey Kuzichev or Artem Semakin), who liberates himself from privilege to experience honest work and seeks the affection of Irina, is actively communicated, so that his death in a duel with the effectively distasteful Solenyi (Andrey Merzlikin or Evgeny Pisarev), Irina’s other suitor, elicits true pathos.

The aging army doctor Chebutykin (Mikhail Zhigalov or Igor Yasulovich), on the wagon until he is not, garners good laughs from his droll sideline observations. And the also-senior local council messenger, Ferapont, and 80 year-old nanny Anfisa (Galina Moracheva) help us register, through their constant work-loads, how indolent the other characters are.

The four acts span nearly three years and the journey from tight-knit family to separate entities facing the failure of their dreams and a variety of looming realities is effectively communicated. Indeed – given all three sisters are still in their 20s when the play ends – the sense that this is something of a liberation from childish and romantic fantasies, into a realm of maturity that will equip them better for the future, is an especially refreshing aspect of this production.

In summary, this Three Sisters brings a vitality to its staging and performances that is visually memorable, humane in its perceptions and fresh in its interpretations, but to non-Russian speakers like me, it remains limited in its accessibility.


Michael Wray February 25th, 2008

I too found the reading of the text a bit of a barrier. I am able to immerse myself in a subtitled foreign language film, often to the extent that after the event I feel like I have been listening to English. When watching a film, the subtitles are directly within your line of sight. At Three Sisters it was necessary to glance away to read the text. I wondered whether this was worse for the stalls than the balconies. For those of us in the stalls, there was no surtitle display directly within a line of sight to the stage. You had to turn your head to one of the screens. Perhaps the balconies were able to maintain a view of both the performance and the surtitles at the same time? It occurred to me that there may have been a form of cognitive dislocation in action for the performers too. Whenever a comic line of text occurs, the audience's trigger for laughter was on reading it. This must have meant that there were times when the laugh preceded the delivery of the line by the actor.

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