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Three Sisters

It's often said that good things come in twos, but adages alone can't account for the overwhelming power of Katie Mitchell's National Theater production of "Three Sisters," which arrives after Michael Blakemore's starrier West End revival. But just as Mitchell's values the ensemble over any individual, so does it view Chekhov's play whole in a way I have never encountered before.

It’s often said that good things come in twos, but adages alone can’t account for the overwhelming power of Katie Mitchell’s National Theater production of “Three Sisters,” which arrives less than two months after Michael Blakemore’s starrier if less revelatory West End revival. That production had the undeniable glamour that comes from watching a performer (Kristin Scott Thomas) admired in one medium creating a very real sensation in another. But just as Mitchell’s account of the play values the ensemble over any one individual, so, too, does it view Chekhov’s play whole in a way I have never encountered before. (Well, at least not since Mitchell’s superlative Young Vic “Uncle Vanya” in 1998.) And if, clocking in at 3½ hours, this latest staging takes its time, then so be it: Time, as Mitchell’s extraordinarily detailed approach to the text reveals, is both Chekhov’s great, immutable subject and the Prozorov sisters’ overriding curse.

Consider the opening scene, which unfolds on a beautiful if somewhat bleached-out Vicki Mortimer set, the design itself hinting at the quiet ravages wrought by the passing of the years. (Mortimer seems to be the Lyttelton’s resident dramatist of the moment, having also designed the concurrent revival of “Jumpers,” with which “Three Sisters” is in repertory.) As clocks are heard ticking, the cast virtually to a person announce their position somewhere or other on a temporal spectrum. For eldest sister Olga (Lorraine Ashbourne), the grief inflicted by the death “a year ago” of their father feels as sharp as if it had happened yesterday, while forward-looking youngest sister Irina (Anna Maxwell Martin) — eight years younger than Olga but a life away in terms of a as-yet-unsullied hopefulness and cheer — counters, “Why go on and on about the past?” But how to avoid it in an environment obsessed with ages and dates and the pressures imposed by a sense of time that works on both a micro- and macrocosmic level?

Irina, for instance, takes an early interest in the newly arrived battery commander Vershinin (Ben Daniels), who, 43 next birthday, is more than twice her age. And while the elderly Ferapont (Peter Needham) “will be 60 soon” (in truth, he looks far older), his seniority pales next to the glorious life that awaits us, says Vershinin, “in two or three hundred years” — small compensation, clearly, for the “forsaken backwater” with which he and the sisters must make do on a day-by-day basis.

It’s Chekhov’s way, of course, to show time eroding everyone’s best dreams and hopes across the play’s four acts. “Life is passing us by; it will never come back!” cries Irina in act three, a rather frantic assertion to hear from someone who by then is only 23. But with the impetuosity of youth, Irina turns out to be all too correct. The girls’ adored brother Andrey (Dominic Rowan), the would-be professor, has become a hard-gambling, corpulent cuckold, and Rowan attacks the role with a frightening lucidity, referring to the “repulsive corpses” that are his children by drama’s most celebrated usurper, the ghastly Natasha (Lucy Whybrow, moving impressively from timidity to a fierce, unsparing temper). (On this front, and others, Nicholas Wright’s new translation is remarkably brisk.)

And while the schoolmistress Olga at the outset has grown old and thin from her pedagogic chores, her younger sisters have caught up with her by play’s end, so that even Irina — in Martin’s electric perf, the febrile nerve center of the production — seems to have grown ashen with distress. Unusually, Mitchell sends Irina out of the Prozorov household in the final moments as if in search of a new life. But Irina, we discover minutes later, is not Ibsen’s Nora: Collapsing in grief, she seems to have become one with the dying birch trees visible through the drizzle.

The spookiest “Three Sisters” in my experience (the seasonal hymn “Silent Night” has never sounded so mournful), the staging ups the affective ante with numerous sequences in which the action is suspended: The actors move in slow motion as if transported to some separate temporal plane. While this conceit may sound like diluted Robert Wilson, it pays enormous dividends. For one thing, you hear entirely anew the contrapuntal discourse that runs through the text about the possibly illusory nature of the characters’ present lives. “This doesn’t feel real,” says Tuzenbach’s romantic rival Solyony (Tim McMullan), while advancing on Irina with the all too actual avidity of a modern-day psycho. Later, Vershinin lets slip that “it’s as though we’re still asleep,” a phenomenon replicated by Mitchell’s insistence on some kind of alternate dreamscape beyond the wretched reality: “Happiness is not a reality for us,” says Vershinin. “It’s just a dream.”

And as the outstanding Daniels (an Olivier winner at this address for “All My Sons”) plays this gallant outsider, Vershinin’s bonhomie has never seemed bleaker at its core: More than ever, this newcomer to the sisters’ lives makes a natural soulmate to doomy middle sister Masha (Eve Best, in fine, brooding form), the black-clad reciter of “Hamlet” who is given to impulsive, if frightening, poetic jags.

With time wreaking its destructive havoc (“This night has aged me 10 years,” says Olga, who has no doubt purposefully been cast with an actress substantially older than the character), Mitchell allows all the characters their full, prismatic weight. Even Natasha is less the obvious villainess than a woman who, once humiliated (as she is in the first-act dinner scene), will seize her moment to strike back — a moment, in her case, that has calcified into an entire way of life.

Masha’s schoolteacher husband Kulygin is definitively played by Angus Wright as a fundamentally decent man who shouldn’t be blamed if, even without comparison to the dashing Vershinin, he emerges as a pedantic dullard. “I love her; she’s a wonderful woman,” Kulygin says of Masha, who responds by giving him a sweet if fully sexless pat. Here, as elsewhere, you feel the characters wanting to do right while simultaneously reeling from life’s cumulative wrongs. As if embodying the cruelest trick played by time, Ashbourne’s lined, sad-faced Olga speaks at the end of “new beginnings,” but you know — as does she — that the phrase in reality exists only to mask old, abiding pains.

Three Sisters

National Theater/Lyttleton, London; 891 Seats; £34 ($54.50) Top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of the play by Anton Chekhov in two acts, in a new version by Nicholas Wright. Directed by Katie Mitchell.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Paule Constable; music, Paul Clark; choreography, Kate Flatt; sound, Gareth Fry. Opened Aug. 12, 2003; reviewed Aug. 14. Running time: 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Masha - Eve Best Olga - Lorraine Ashbourne Irina - Anna Maxwell Martin Vershinin - Ben Daniels Solyony - Tim McMullan Tuzenbach - Paul Hilton Kulygin - Angus Wright Andrey - Dominic Rowan Natasha - Lucy Whybrow Chebutykin - Patrick Godfrey <b>With:</b> Antonia Pemberton, Fiona Mason, Beth Fitzgerald, Thomas Arnold, Peter Eastland, Sean Jackson, Jessica Green, Peter Needham.