I don’t know who it was that first or most accurately described the feeling that there is always, somewhere on earth, a brilliant party happening and you are not invited. But it’s a compelling and more than relatable metaphor, even if you don’t actually like parties. It’s the basic idea that breeds FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’, a perpetual anxiety that you could be spending time with better people doing better things in better places (probably while having a better amount of money in your bank account too).
Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a play soaked – almost pickled – in FOMO. The titular sisters, Masha, Olga and Irina, along with many of the other characters, spend their days rhapsodising about Moscow or complaining about the stifling boredom experienced in their provincial backwater. It’s also a play about parties, with its melancholia set against a backdrop of celebrations, firstly Irina’s name day festivities and later the carnival happening in the town. In Rebecca Frecknall’s production, however, this isn’t the case – or not really, anyway.
Both Irina’s celebration (here, in Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation, changed slightly to her birthday) and the carnival stay in the plot, but they’re considerably downplayed. Instead, the action opens with their father’s funeral, meaning the bouquets filling the room for Irina originate as funeral flowers and the entire proceedings adopt a subdued aura. Anything relating to the carnival or other lively events, like the sound of a marching band, are in this staging barely audible, let alone glimpsed. Everything is quiet, muted, hushed. So the characters’ metaphorical feeling that there is a party happening somewhere but they’re not invited, is actually accompanied by the sense that, in this particular staging, the party really is taking place elsewhere, including perhaps in the parallel theatrical universe of another director’s mind with another set of three sisters.
Lynn’s version of the play is straightforwardly faithful to the original and largely similar to other English-language versions of it – for example Ronald Hingley’s version published in the Oxford World Classics collection of Chekhov’s Five Plays – give or take a few choices with idioms or puns. I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair to criticise Lynn for staying close to how Chekhov wrote it, but it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. With its dense chunks of dialogue and four big, long scenes, Three Sisters could hugely benefit from an adapter going through it with the literary equivalent of those special thinning scissors hairdressers use to so satisfyingly sweep out whole chunks of unwanted bulk.
The most ‘radical’ thing Lynn does is make the time period ambiguous, a feature reinforced by Frecknall’s staging and its design. While it appears most likely that we are in the present day, or something close to it, the piece is littered with historic reminders which, at points, make it feel like the action is taking place in a nowheresville with everyone floating in a suspended pocket of time. The women’s costumes are one of the best examples of this. Each of them keeps to the colour coding designated by Chekhov – black for Masha, navy for Olga and white for Irina – and wear outfits that are simultaneously modern yet, through hemlines, necklines, sleeve lengths and pleating, instantly evocative of the nineteenth century.
Indeed, most of the interesting things about the Almeida’s production come about because of Frecknall’s direction or the superb performances of Pearl Chanda as Masha, Patsy Ferran as Olga and Ria Zmitrowicz as Irina. Like the Native American ‘three sisters’ method of companion planning corn, beans and squash together, Chekhov’s siblings always work best as a collective mass, each one only really understood when placed alongside the others. This is particularly true here where the performances are distinct to the point of almost (but never quite) being cartoonish. Chanda’s gothic Masha barely conceals crackling pain and an overload of emotion behind dryly-intoned insults. Zmitrowicz’s Irina is, for the most part, goofily girlish in a way that suggests this is her own coping mechanism, like it’s an active decision to take pleasure in a cute set of colouring pencils rather than give in to sadness. And both only really make sense when imagined growing up or around the base of Ferran’s stoic, calm and studiously reasonable Olga.
There was a moment during watching Three Sisters, when Irina lay on the floor at the front of the stage playing cards and the stage was illuminated with globules of orange light, where I thought to myself, ‘this is so fucking beautiful, it hurts to look at it.’ Hildegard Bechtler’s design and Jack Knowles lighting combine to make scenes of such considered gorgeousness that, like Irina whirling in the snowstorm, you start to feel a bit dizzy looking at them. It’s the kind of beauty that’s pushing so hard against its own limitations, straining to look just-so, that it always feels on the brink of shattering or of becoming a memory before you’ve fully witnessed it. The kind of beauty that leaves you feeling a little hopeless.
It seems borderline lazy to compare Three Sisters to last year’s Summer and Smoke just because the parallels are so obvious: another classic play directed by Frecknall at the Almeida starring Ferran. But it’s almost impossible not to – if you’ve seen Summer and Smoke, that is. Like with the Tennessee Williams, Frecknall makes use of the Almeida’s height, with Freddie Meredith’s Andrey literally climbing the walls and sitting on a suspended shelf for most of the play in an echo of Ferran’s elevated position in the publicity image for Summer and Smoke. The design is minimalistic, stripped to suggest you’re going to see the bones of the play.
But there’s also a more obvious visual overlap. At the back of the stage in Three Sisters is a wooden piano that could pretty much have been wheeled straight on from the previous play where multiple pianos surrounded the stage. Unlike with Summer and Smoke, the instrument remains unplayed throughout. Instead, it serves as a reminder of music that could be there but isn’t. We’re back to the absence of parties again. The absence of levity, celebration, life. The piano, in a way, is the equivalent of a Twitter feed showing everyone else out drinking on a beach while you sit at home eating crisps in bed. It’s a reminder of all the fun you could, or should, be having but aren’t. In this respect, Frecknall’s production, for all its slight clumsiness, captures the despondency of the three sisters and the longing for joy they feel so acutely. ‘Parties’ are basically a stand-in for ‘life’ or ‘love’, for living fully. Frecknall turns it into a generally sad play and that’s the feeling you’re left with even after the action ends with a commitment to going on living and finding purpose through work, work, work. You imagine they still wish they’d been sent an invitation.
Three Sisters is on at Almeida Theatre till 1st June. More info here.