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London Theater Review: ‘Three Sisters’

Rising director Rebecca Frecknall's latest production is a Chekhov for our times.

Pearl Chanda, Lois Chimimba, Alexander Eliot, Patsy Ferran, Annie Firbank, Elliot Levey, Eric MacLennan, Peter McDonald, Freddie Meredith, Sonny Poon Tip, Shubham Saraf, Akshay Sharan, Alan Williams, Ria Zmitrowicz.

2 hours 50 minutes

Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them?

Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom — three city creatures cut off in a remote country pile, pining for Moscow and its metropolitan buzz — becomes a portrait of a population becalmed at London’s Almeida Theatre. Rebecca Frecknall’s spare staging seems to be holding its breath, but beneath its still surface, there’s an edge of panic or even despair holding everyone back. The future feels ominous. Things can only get worse. Needless to say, it resonates in Brexit Britain today.

Lynn prises the play out of its specific context — the lull that preceded the upheaval of World War One and the Russian Revolution — but this isn’t a modernization, per se. Russian names remain intact, technology’s not invoked and yet it is, nonetheless, an update of sorts. Chekhov’s characters could be our contemporaries: the Prozorov sisters, modern-day millennials. Ria Zmitrowicz’s babyish Irina openly acknowledges her anxiety, while Pearl Chanda’s Masha bristles at her education going to waste for want of opportunity. Both long for love and settle for second best. Patsy Ferran’s Olga, meanwhile, puts her ambitions on hold to hold things together, as their brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith) sits idly on a ledge above the stage, visibly depressed. The world they were promised has never come.

If “Three Sisters” is a play about people on pause, Lynn’s adaptation tunes into its timescales. There’s a musicality to Frecknall’s staging, a constant awareness of its tempo and rhythms. Time is the rising young director’s signature.

In “Summer and Smoke,” which won an Olivier Award last week, Frecknall set a community’s quotidian concerns against the enormity of eternity. As metronomes ticked, one death broke the present apart and stopped all the clocks: a gunshot segued, softly, into a soaring swansong. It was an “Our Town” moment: life seen, in full, from afar.

“Three Sisters” returns to the same terrain with greater variety and subtlety, circling the distance between objective and subjective time, between the way it moves and the way it feels. Punctuated by moments of suspension — the spinning top, most famously, but also chimneys that whistle like solar wind and pocket watches that gently chime the hour. Overhead, flocking geese fly by — a sign that, even in stasis, the seasons keep shifting. Some seconds stretch out, others rush by in a burst of activity. A camera catches moments as snapshots that are beamed onto the back wall: still lives.

Frecknall’s skill is to ensure every character sits in a time zone of their own. From the start — “a year since father died” — the three daughters occupy very different spaces: one’s buoyant, one’s downbeat, the other’s reflective. It goes for everyone: Peter McDonald’s poetic optimism as Vershinin pings off the Latin aphorisms Elliot Levey trots out as Masha’s husband, Fyodor. While Lois Chimimba bustles broodily around as Natasha, Alan Williams (as Chebutykin) slumps, sizzled and self-loathing, in a chair. “Ta-ra-ra-boom-ti-yay,” he sings, “I drank my life away.” Somebody snoozes, someone else stands on tenterhooks.

Each character is entirely fully-fleshed, the center of their own story, taking their own time and only coming together at moments of communal significance: a funeral, for instance, or a nearby fire. Frecknall doesn’t so much direct Chekhov’s play as conduct it. The result sits in that sweet spot: a Chekhov for our times.

London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

Almeida Theatre, London; 325 seats; £42.50 ($55) top. Opened April 16, 2019, reviewed April 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in four acts by Anton Chekhov.

Creative: Adapted by Cordelia Lynn; Directed by Rebecca Frecknall; Design, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Jack Knowles; sound, George Dennis; composition, Angus MacRae.

Cast: Pearl Chanda, Lois Chimimba, Alexander Eliot, Patsy Ferran, Annie Firbank, Elliot Levey, Eric MacLennan, Peter McDonald, Freddie Meredith, Sonny Poon Tip, Shubham Saraf, Akshay Sharan, Alan Williams, Ria Zmitrowicz.

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