Sisters doing it for themselves

Theatre - Katherine Duncan-Jones on a portrayal of sublime ennui that is never boring

When Brian Friel's version of Chekhov's Three Sisters was first performed in Ireland in the early 1980s, I imagine it carried echoes of the turn-of-the century Protestant ascendancy - that doomed world of "the rich man's flowering lawns" enjoyed by Yeats and Lady Gregory before the Easter Rising of 1916. In its English premiere at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it works differently and seems far more psychological than political, although it's also extremely entertaining. In all productions of Chekhov, the overwhelming challenge is to explore the profound ennui of the provincial gentry - for whom, as for Philip Larkin, "life is first boredom, then fear" - without ever allowing the theatre audience to become bored. Fresh from her triumphant production of the Gershwins' My One and Only (continuing in repertory until 22 September), Loveday Ingram, directing a generously large and consistently talented cast, rises to this beautifully.

The opening scene is colourful, noisy, bustling and comic, seeming at many points as if it's about to become Three Sisters: the musical. Even the inert misery of Masha front stage (a mesmerising performance by Janie Dee) doesn't much shadow things. But each of the three succeeding scenes has its own distinctive pace, atmosphere and visual style that radically modifies what has gone before, until, in the fourth and final scene, we reach "classic" Chekhov - a quiet outdoor location with many long drawn-out goodbyes and brave plans for a grim future, disturbed only by the ominous sound of an offstage shot.

Though the Festival Theatre might seem too cavernous for the enclosed domesticity of Chekhov, its deep and high space turns out to enrich the play hugely, in every sense, and Colin Falconer, as designer, uses the space to the full. For once, we can believe that the Prozorov mansion does indeed stand in a large provincial Russian town - with 100,000 inhabitants, several schools and a wearisomely complex local bureaucracy. Though it is obviously not Moscow, it has its own nightlife, with bustling troika traffic even in winter, and quite enough drinking and gambling dives to draw the blighted Andrey (Richard Henders) out to squander his sisters' patrimony. There is also believably room here for a whole riotous regiment of soldiers to be posted. The sense that the sisters inhabit a sizeable city works spectacularly well in scene three, when much of the town is ablaze outside the window and the Prozorovs rummage for clothes for the dispossessed. The substantial size of this nameless city also makes Irina's celebrated longing for Moscow manifestly irrational.

What she truly longs for, this production suggests, is not so much the geographical heart of things as her own childhood. The three sisters and their brother have lost their parents far too young and are left with the inadequate Doctor as a parental figure (a virtuoso performance by David Ryall, which made me long to see him as Falstaff), whose spongeing, idleness and boring bufferdom can all be tolerated because he adored their long-dead mother. The siblings' wild mood swings from joy to dull misery are shaped by the traumas of unresolved grief. Even though they all talk so much about the future - both their own future lives of quiet, desperate diligence and a distant utopian future when people will enjoy a life less humdrum - it seems that their own past, symbolised by "Moscow", is always with them. And while they continue to mourn their own childhoods, the siblings themselves remain children. Although they talk so much about the possibility of a better form of existence - the wider dissemination of culture and education, for instance, assisted by Olga's devoted labours as a schoolmistress - there is no sense of individual progeny as rewarding. The vacuity of Masha's marriage to the pompous but decent schoolmaster Kulygin (a scene-stealing performance by Ian Gelder) seems to have little to do with its childlessness, and the unseen daughters of Lt Col Vershinin (Michael Siberry) are primarily an annoying impediment to Masha's and Vershinin's high romantic passion. Natasha's obsession with her babies appears selfish, especially when it leads to the younger Prozorov sisters being banished from their familiar bedrooms. And Andrey's manic pram-pushing in the closing scene comes across as a positively Beckettian image of total enslavement, like Lucky on Pozzo's rope.

It is a remarkable achievement to incorporate such modern resonances successfully into a production that is, in most ways, pleasingly traditional and yet, like all the best productions, makes us see a familiar play with new eyes.

Three Sisters is at the Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312) until 29 September

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot