Powerful cast make John Byrne's adaptation of Chekhov classic
Andy Arnold clearly regards Chekhov as a tragic author. Apart from the senile capering of Dr MacGillivery (Sylvester McCoy), John Byrne's adaptation of Three Sisters brings out the gloomy existential doubt, grinding towards its pessimistic finale. With a powerful cast refusing the temptation to find the comedy, this depiction of lives lost in apathy and frustrated ambition finds misery in love and pointlessness in self-sacrifice.
Andy Clark casts a fine figure as McShane, the naval admiral who arrives in the small town and brings a romantic masculinity into the lives of the three sisters. Still in mourning for their father, and the loss of luxury that his death entails, the sisters are gradually destroyed by the idiocy of their older brother – supposedly an intellectual, he swaps his academic ambition for a vulgar wife and local political power – and their own desires. Youngest daughter Renee has her romantic dreams strangled, the eldest is stuck with a teaching career that does not fulfil her, while Maddy (Sally Reid) falls for McShane. Unfortunately, she is already married to the teacher Fairbairn, a pompous fool.
Arnold lets Chekhov's characters reveal their failures with a sympathetic touch – only Natasha, the vulgar wife (Louise McCarthy), is exposed as unpleasant – and it is the quality of the cast that gives the production its energy. Once it is clear that fate intends to crush all of the characters, the direction feels ponderous, winding towards the inevitable. However, the precision of Chekhov's vision and Byrne's dynamic script prevent the play sliding into the inertia that destroys the family. Clark and Reid evince a warm chemistry: their thwarted passion is moving and recognisable.
If the casting of the sisters throws into question the gap between their ages – Jessica Hardwick as Renee appears considerably younger than Muireann Kelly's Olive, making their shared childhood recollections appear unlikely the clarity of Arnold's direction plays homage to the quality of the speeches. The attempt at a surreal interlude is less successful, and the pace lingers a little too long on the anguish in the second half. Nevertheless, this Three Sisters is a respectful wallow in Chekhov's tragic temperament, and the ensemble add a theatrical pleasure to the emotional pain.
Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 18 Oct.
King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 21–Sat 25 Oct.