The Playhouse Theater stage is flooded with light at the start of Michael Blakemore’s new “Three Sisters,” which reaches an aesthetically arrested West End with something of the force with which the army officer Vershinin shakes up life in the Prozorov household. For all that doesn’t work about the production — starting with Robin Don’s absurdly cramped and wrongly metaphoric set (a cage? please) and extending to at least two misguided performances in key roles — it seems unfair to complain too much, confronted with Chekhov’s play. That nearly blinding opening notwithstanding (the lighting designer is Mark Henderson, in a bold mood), is there another, bleaker play that happens to tally so completely with our own blighted, uncertain age? (Perhaps “King Lear.”)
To be sure, Vershinin near the outset posits a beautiful life to come, but only in two or three hundred years. The here and now, by contrast, is an existence endured in limbo, marked only by thwarted ambitions, encroaching pettiness and shattered hopes for a happiness that is eternally deferred: When Kristin Scott Thomas’ career-defining Masha exhales a guttural moan minutes before play’s end, she could be grieving for anyone or, indeed, any civilization that once looked forward only to realize that the possibility of peace and respite lies solely in the past.
This “Three Sisters” isn’t the best Chekhov one’s ever seen, nor is it the only major London revival of this play this year: The National opens its own version in August, directed by Katie Mitchell and starring “The Coast of Utopia’s” galvanic Eve Best as Masha. But however much it felt on opening night like a series of moments rather than a cumulative occasion, Blakemore’s version comes blazingly to life whenever Scott Thomas assumes center-stage.
And even when she doesn’t (fingering her mouth while restlessly reading in the opening scene, her Masha speaks volumes of frustration before speaking a single word), Scott Thomas in her London stage debut proves so natural a Chekhovian that one immediately wants to cast her across the entire canon. (What an Arkadina she could make!) Her eyes slicing through the torpor of Russian provincial life, Scott Thomas embodies to an amazingly eloquent degree the abiding paradox of Chekhov: the fury of an inactivity that remains unmatched by any other playwright except possibly Beckett, whose fabled Godot finds a direct antecedent in the sisters’ no less unattainable Moscow.
That rage, however clamped-down, courses through Scott Thomas’ every moment, culminating late on in the simple remark, “Here, I’m seething,” that she delivers clutching her stomach, Masha’s stamina undimmed — indeed, intensified — by the dull prospect of life without Vershinin. With that in mind, one wishes the actress had a Vershinin of comparable charisma, as opposed to the airbrushed presence of British TV star Robert Bathurst, whose portliness seems far more suited to the description in Christopher Hampton’s brisk new adaptation of Andrei, the sisters’ fast-sinking brother, than to the visitor who represents Masha’s lone prospect of salvation.
As Andrei, the ever-notable Douglas Hodge — he was the best thing about the recent London revival of Pinter’s “The Caretaker” — subordinates his leading-man looks to a disturbingly sweaty portrait of an overgrown child who seeks flabby refuge in one or another of the onstage chairs, looking like an adult version of the babies that his overbearing wife, Natasha (Susannah Wise), is forever churning out.
Elsewhere, the cast has yet to become a proper company, and Wise in particular can’t make sense of the play’s most difficult role, the outsider who ends up usurping the entire household. (Tellingly, Natasha delivers the same fashion-related insult at the end that is leveled against her when she first appears.) As if to feed the thinking in some circles that Chekhov these days has been entirely domesticated by the Brits as a sort of antecedent to Ayckbourn, James Fleet (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) plays the pedantic Kulygin — the man Masha has been landed with, as opposed to the one she loves — like a figure directly from an Ayckbourn play, complete with a brow that furrows right on cue. On the other hand, veteran comedian Eric Sykes plays the elderly (and deaf) family retainer, Ferapont, with rather endearing deference, leaving it to others — Madeleine Worrall’s impulsive Irina, among them — to up the volume.
In the end, though, one returns to Scott Thomas, whose Masha is matched by the movingly, quietly pained Olga of Kate Burton, making her own West End debut. Far surpassing her overpraised work on Broadway of late, Burton lets you feel the headaches that plague the eldest sister gone thin with age, Olga’s anxiety an acute response to the succession of defeats that have made a fatalist out of Irina. (Remarking, “It’s all in God’s hands,” Irina sounds less like someone who has surrendered herself to grace than like a child-woman old beyond her years who has simply given up.)
Masha’s own reckoning with the world is to reason herself toward a happiness she knows to be a lie. “Life is good,” she says, “whatever the damage,” and barely has the remark passed her lips before she is collapsed in the pain that is her real “destiny” and that a brilliant newcomer to the London stage makes bruisingly complete.