Vanessa Kirby and Mariah Gale in

It's only fair to point out that Chekhov's original "Three Sisters" script doesn't actually include everyone singing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the first-act party.

It’s only fair to point out that Chekhov’s original “Three Sisters” script doesn’t actually include everyone singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the first-act party. Those with hackles ready to rise will shudder, but the most impressive thing about Benedict Andrew’s bold update is that said vodka-fuelled number and other equally rethought moments genuinely work alongside Andrews’ own surprisingly faithful version of the text.

By David Benedict

Although there’s a cumulative emotional power to the production, it is undeniably uneven. Johannes Schutz’s set is emblematic: The audience is wrapped around three sides of a gray, furniture-free, runway-shaped, raised stage, which makes for a dynamic, unusually uncluttered acting space, but at the far end is a huge mound of earth — the kind of Pina Bausch-influenced idea that yells “symbolism!” but articulates very little.

Yet the degree of intelligence in the relocation is instantly apparent via the opening presentation of Masha (Vanessa Kirby). Absorbed in her book, she sings David Bowie’s “Golden Years” under her breath, a neat transposition considering that the playwright has her whistling, to the annoyance of her sister Olga (Mariah Gale), and reciting a poem about a golden thread.

The carefully unspecific contemporary setting certainly doesn’t diminish the thwarted hopes that curdle the sisters’ lives. That’s particularly impressive as, without sacrificing audience sympathy, Andrews consciously takes the shine off the notion that all three women are tragic heroines. Determined though she is to be a useful member of society, Gala Gordon’s impressively well-judged Irina complains loudly about the dullness of the jobs she undertakes. Equally, although Masha has the play’s most emotional plotline with the gain and loss of a love, Andrews never lets us forget that the love is deeply selfish and at the serious expense of other people.

The more restrained performances are the most engaging. Sam Troughton is a fine, unshowy Tuzenbach, helplessly but calmly in love. Even Natasha, the brash young wife of Andrey (Danny Kirrane), is given a rare degree of sympathy. She’s traditionally the play’s most unsympathetic character, but even though Emily Barclay is amusingly dressed in vulgar, vertiginously high-heeled boots and loud furs, she allows you to see how impossible it is for Natasha to fit into the sisters’ world.

Not all the presentations are so well balanced. Andrey’s massively overstated costume choice makes him such a complete slob that his relationship to his sisters makes little sense. As Chebutykin, Michael Feast goes way over the top with self-loathing, and William Houston is so overtly self-conscious as Vershinin — he preens as he alternately caresses and whispers his words — that he risks losing audience sympathy for Masha’s dilemma.

Yet thanks to Kirby’s final unmasking of her previously disguised intensity, Masha’s final breakdown is properly upsetting. By the end, Andrews has methodically stripped away the set to leave the sisters stranded in a bare, comfortless world. The desperate hope of their final, defiant tableau is as moving as Chekhov could have wished.

Three Sisters

Young Vic, London; 420 seats; £30 $49 top

Production

A Young Vic presentation of a play in two acts by Anton Chekhov in a version by Benedict Andrews. Directed by Andrews.

Creative

Sets, Johannes Schutz; costumes, Victoria Behr; lighting, James Farncombe; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Phil Bateman; production stage manager, Sarah Tryfan. Opened, Sept. 13, 2012, reviewed Sept. 15. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Masha - Vanessa Kirby
Olga - Mariah Gale
Irina - Gala Gordon
Andrey - Danny Kirrane
Natasha - Emily Barclay
Vershinin - William Houston
Tuzenbach - Sam Troughton
Soliony - Paul Rattray
Kulygin - Adrian Schiller
Chebutykin - Michael Feast
With Orion Ben, Sindy Czureja, Harry Dickman, Gruffudd Glyn, Richard Pryal, Ann Queensberry.

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