Details: The Abbey Theatre, 26 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1, Ireland
Chekhov's classic focuses on the loves and losses of three well educated sisters who have survived their parents. The challenge for any director is to capture their haunting nostalgia for a time that never truly was. Katie Mitchell's production fixates passionately on Irena, Masha and Olgas' confusion as their faith in institutions crumbles, arguing that their disillusionment is akin to the lethargy of modern youth.
Valid and nurturing though this interpretation may be, Mitchell spoils the play rotten with set pieces of physical theatre devised to show the horrors of passing time and dying dreams. Designed to be deadening on its own terms with its lengthy pauses, misunderstandings and humour full of bathos, Chekhov's play suffers for these overly explicit if contemporary additions.
For the play's enduring relevance to today is evident enough from the increasing number of Chekhov revivals and the recent West End version of Three Sisters. Mitchell's show is on much firmer ground when she stops telling her audience to pay attention and loses herself in the psychology of poor, hopeful Irena. In more traditional productions, sulky Masha's marriage to a man she doesn't love and affair with a married man who leaves her for war too often steals the limelight from older spinster Olga's troubles and from the doomed desires of their younger sister. Yet even Eve Best's brooding performance plays second fiddle to Mitchell's fascination with Irena.
Most radical and ultimately most engaging is Mitchell's conviction that the youngest sisters' plight is worth the most stage time. This Irena is not the pretty, innocent thing of past productions, but a mournful twenty year old who becomes more so with age. If nothing else, it is refreshing to be given insight into how depression develops.